Portrait of a Lady on Fire review – A Tale of Indescribable Romance and Intimacy | London Film Festival 2019

The beauty and elegance of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is indescribable, the sensation and contagiousness of the love story will no doubt go down in cinematic history. Like Call Me by Your Name, Portrait succeeds in capturing a delicate intimacy unlike nothing cinema has ever given, its chillingly perfect in its slow dance into romance.

It’s about lost love, the imagery of a haunting white dressed lover reminds us of the inevitable as it’s a memoir of a character’s love story. The perfect word to describe Portrait of a Lady on Fire is nonchalant, Céline Sciamma captures timeless ambiguity as although it’s a period piece, it belongs as a film today.


In 1770 the young daughter of a French countess develops a mutual attraction to the female artist commissioned to paint her wedding portrait. We first lay eyes upon a painter, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) who is running a portrait class and is asked about the story of a mysterious painting titled “Portrait de la jeune fille en feu”. We then flashback to a journey that Marianne embarked upon, leading her to meeting Héloïse (Adele Haenel), who she is tasked to paint a portrait of. Héloïse refuses to pose, so Marianne must in secret observe and paint her in secret.

This is perhaps the most intimate film ever made, the experience of watching is unmatched with its delicate flow into intimacy that chills to the bone. The film is ravishingly-made and a sensual overload full of silent eroticism, you can’t help but desire this to be a reality, there is a pitch-perfect match to the equality and balance between the two – seen visually and in the looks they give each other. The cinematography and direction are sublime, like Marianne’s paintings, every frame is a sensual overload in beauty and sublimity.


The film stars two strikingly inwards performances by Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, there is a love dialogue that steps beyond convention into a place of inner desire and from their soothing chemistry what you get is a flourishing of intimate love, the real kind. The film is paced slowly to draw you slowly into the gaze upon which Merlant’s Marianne observes a constant, eventually transferring to a different kind of spectatorship, where we are welcomed to view upon their romance.

Painting can be portrayed in many ways, Sciamma uses it to capture gesture, rhythm and a dance of movement which parallels to carefully paced ascent into love. You will undoubtedly be left broken-hearted, that is down to the pristine crafting of a intimate tale of romance, with blossoming passion oozing off the screen which makes the ending all the more impactful. Additionally, there is a sort-of-constellation of cinema unveiling itself in the closing frames, with a Hitchcockian take, Sciamma’s stages a space in which we stare upon knowingly in the line of the camera’s vision. It really creates an admiration of cinema and the delicacy of which a romance can touch you.


Portrait of a Lady on Fire oozes elegance and is nonchalant in its intimacy and exploration of now-which-is-one of cinema’s greatest love stories. Claire Mathon’s cinematography is beautifully sublime, visually and passionately you can’t help but to awe upon the masterful nature of Sciamma’s film backed by two sensually overloading performances.

5/5 Stars ★★★★★

Ben Rolph

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE premiered at CANNES and is playing at the BFI London Film Festival NOW




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