Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an achingly romantic drama from director Celine Sciamma set in 18th century France about two women who develop a love affair through the power of art. Starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel the visually striking film is filled with unspoken desires and a passionate dream-like atmosphere. The Criterion Collection brings the film to Region A Blu-ray with an impressive A/V presentation and just enough bonus features to please fans of the film. Highly Recommended.
“Do all lovers feel as if they’re inventing something?”
The film opens on painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) in a rowboat clutching her possessions. She has been sent to a secluded island off the coast of Brittany on commission. Hired by La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter for an arranged marriage to a Milanese gentleman. Unfortunately, daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) refuses to sit for any painter. She doesn't acknowledge the marriage and thus her portrait would indicate an approval of the union. The countess has arranged for this painting to be completed in secret. Marianne will be introduced merely as a companion for Héloïse during her walks by the sea. Their first encounter is a terrifying race to the cliff edge that results in the two testing the waters of their new arrangement. Héloïse reveals that she is replacing her sister in the arranged marriage after she tragically died. La Comtesse is eager to marry off a daughter no matter who it might be. Over time the two women lower their guard to see their friendship grow into an obsession that ignites into a passionate love affair. While set in the 18th century their story of breaking social norms and embracing their true selves is more relevant than ever.
On the surface Portrait of a Lady on Fire sounds like a simple story that in capable hands could produce a rather pedestrian bodice-ripping period piece. Thankfully this is not the case. Sciamma’s attention to detail creates such heightened levels of tension that the smallest moments blossom with deep emotional impact. Fleeting moments between the two women are held in such sacred regard that we are able to glean the intense need for human connection the women desire. Whether its Marianne studying the hands of her subject or the two laying in each other’s arms while the countess is away, Portrait of a Lady on Fire realizes in full form the aching need for love and connection.
Once the portrait is complete Héloïse looks upon it with disdain saying, “Is that how you see me?” Marianne presents a cold portrait displaying merely an object of matrimonial desire. The saddened painter replies “It’s not only me. There are rules, conventions, ideas”. Herein Sciamma begins the delicate balance of developing the relationship between the two women while recognizing the oppressive society outside the manor house walls. It’s when Marianne and Héloïse confess their love for one another that the artist begins again with a new portrait evoking art rather than convention.
Performances from Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are electrifying as the two women fully realize the burden of their characters while displaying an incredible amount of restraint and attention to rhythm and momentum within scenes. It would be a shame to consider Luàna Bajrami’s performance as Sophie the housemaid supporting as her character faces a decision that ultimately unites the three women in an unforeseen circumstance. Valeria Golino portrays La Comtesse in a measured yet graceful manner enforcing the rules of society. It should come as no surprise that there are no male speaking parts in the film. Other than the sailors rowing Marianne’s boat and a messenger there are no men participating in the narrative.
While the women in the film are never around men their presence is always felt beyond the walls of the simple manor house. When La Comtesse leaves on business the three women are completely free from any strict adherence to the rules of French society. They let down their inhibitions, have a few drinks, and attend a bonfire in the village. Marianne looks across to see the object of her desire bathed in firelight as cinders dance through the air. Not only does the fire ignite Héloïse’s dress but also the smoldering desire between the two women who share their first kiss shortly afterward. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an engrossing, intimate, and ultimately tragic story that unfolds before our eyes in the most beautiful film of 2019.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Portrait of a Lady on Fire arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Criterion Collection in a single disc release with spine #1034. Pressed onto a BD50 disc this Region A Blu-ray is housed in a standard transparent Criterion-style case complete with gorgeous artwork and an insert booklet featuring an essay from critic Ela Bittencourt. The disc loads to a static Main Menu screen with typical navigation options laid out in that beautiful slider interface present on every Criterion disc.
Criterion’s Blu-ray provides the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio in 1080p with loads of depth and detail. While shot in 8k this Blu-ray uses the film’s 4k master pressed onto a dual-layer disc. The results are excellent even if some issues are apparent. Image quality is robust with a vivid color palette with bold primaries. Greens and blues sing throughout the feature whether from costuming or the crashing waves of the ocean. Fine detail reveals nuances in performance and the effortless artistry within the production. You can almost count the stitches on the wardrobe. Black levels are strong but compression artifacts occur during some low light scenes in the manor house. It’s barely noticeable and doesn’t detract from the overall presentation.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire arrives on Region A Blu-ray with a subtle yet impressive DTS-HD MA 5.1 French audio track. The audio smartly creates an isolated atmosphere and immerses you within the intimate settings of our characters. Here the dialogue for the film is reproduced clearly without a hint of hiss or disturbance. Background effects trickle through the surrounds and front channels elevating the atmosphere of scenes like cracking fireplaces and the shuffling of shoes across the floorboards. Exterior scenes on the cliff face and beach fill the mix with lush environmental sounds rendering this DTS mix surprisingly dynamic.
The Criterion Collection has put together a pleasant package of extras for this disc but I am left wanting more than just a handful of interviews. Those aching for more features and a commentary track should check out the Region B Blu-ray from Artificial Eye.
Director Céline Sciamma has quietly established herself as a talented filmmaker focused on exploring the trials of passionate women. With Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the simplicity of the narrative is drowned out by the raw passion screaming out for human connection like the undercurrent of a calm ocean wave cresting towards a beachhead. It is such a profoundly beautiful and heartbreaking film that is utterly magnetic from the start. The Criterion Collection brings the film to Blu-ray with an impressive A/V presentation and enough bonus features to please those interested in the film. Highly Recommended.