En fuego is the name of the game in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a movie that seems to literally emit steam from every scene—and that’s not even innuendo to the film’s sex scenes. Vibrantly shot and beautifully acted, Portrait is one of the year’s better movies—even if it is a costume drama.
Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel play Marianne and Héloïse respectively—Marianne has been hired to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse, a sad and emotionally isolated young woman stuck on a remote island in Brittany who is waiting to wed a man she had never met. The two strike up a friendship, and something more.
Merlant and Haenel are both exquisite, with Haenel’s emotional journey particularly powerful, but more profound is the two women’s chemistry with one another. Their every interaction crackles on screen, each glance pure electricity. As friends and as lovers, their romance looks and feels real.
That energy is what underpins Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and what elevates it above the countless, stodgy costume dramas that have come and gone without a fleeting thought. The movie may be set in the 18th century, but Sciamma’s screenplay manages to both fit the time period and avoid the trappings of the genre.
The acting and writing aside, Portrait looks gorgeous, too. Sciamma masterfully commands every scene, and cinematographer Claire Mathon brings even the smallest of moments to life in the most fluid, enthralling of ways.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s story isn’t particularly groundbreaking, and yet everything about the movie feels fresh, dynamic. Every moment emits smoke, and the two actresses bring the heat.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.