By Casey Campbell
Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?
Cinematic romance and intimacy is something that requires precision. Done well, it can invoke experiences and emotions for a place you’ve never been with people you’ve never met. Done poorly, it’s either laughable or cringe-worthy. Portrait of a Lady on Fire from French film maker Céline Sciamma is a passionate look at same-sex love built beautifully and fully through meaningful dialogue, subtle performances, and lush photography. It’s streaming on Hulu.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire manages to say a lot with few words. It’s also primarily focused on the characters, as opposed to being plot heavy. The movie is about a painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The catch though, which incites the intimacy between the leads, is that Héloïse can’t know that Marianne is there to paint a portrait. So, Marianne must get to know her subject by taking walks with her and talking. The set up is perfectly simple and the way the characters grow into each other is felt through the nuanced performances. A glance here, eye-contact there, and suddenly it’s love. It’s obviously not as easy as that sounds, but the movie portrays it in a human way that’s universal.
I love that there’s no score, and any music heard is played or sung in scene by characters. It lets the performances truly speak for themselves, without any sappy music informing your emotions. The same can be said of the photography, which is clean and rarely moving or shifting from the women. The sequences of portrait painting are mesmerizing and informative of the characters emotional journey.
Basically, this movie is really really really great, and simple writing about it doesn’t do it justice. It’s delicate and provocative and a video essay would really suit this film better than a slew of adjectives listed in no particular order. In no way is this review’s brevity a knock on the film, rather it shows that I’m not really able to correctly articulate how good it is. It’s the kind of thing you need to just see to believe the chemistry and raw emotion. It’s amazing, and it’s on Hulu.