I don’t want to tell you about Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I don’t want to discuss its moments of beauty. I don’t want to expose what feels like a secret, the love that exists between two people. I don’t want to impede on their union and I certainly don’t want to disturb the affection they have for one another.
What I do want to tell you about is how I ache for a world where filmmakers are inspired by the work of Céline Sciamma. I yearn for a future of cinema that takes the beats and themes of Portrait of a Lady on Fire and applies them to all works of art going forward. I desire a world where this story becomes a monumental shift in the way art is created.
I refuse to tell what the plot of this film is, because I want you to discover the love within this film for yourself. I want you to enter the cinema with your heart open, and I want you to leave the theatre feeling ok with having had it torn in two, coming to the realisation that you never needed your heart anyhow. I want you to immerse yourself in the story of two people falling in love.
I also want you to see how similar our current society is to 18th century France. I want you to be surprised about how femininity has been stifled throughout history. I want you to find comfort in the caring, empathetic, powerfully feminist way that cinematographer Claire Mathon captures this world.
I want you to appreciate the silence, the ambient noise, the out of tune piano, the roaring of a fireplace, the gentle diegetic sounds of the world. I’m eager for you to walk away from this film with a desire to sit in silence and just listen to the world.
I also want you to feel the distance between you and the person you love when you’re not sure if they feel the same way. I want you to recognise the divide that exists in the moments before a stolen kiss. I hope you can understand the tension, the desire, the aching, the yearning, in that moment.
I hope you look at your loved ones and store their face in every corner of your mind so you can cherish that memory in the depths of the dark of night. I feel that after this film, you’ll recall what makes them smile, how they look when they’re frustrated, what they do with their hands when they’re sitting, thinking, living. And if your loved one is no longer in your life, then I hope that you find comfort in the memories that incidental things that you encounter in your day may unexpectedly conjure.
I want you to recognise how pointedly masculine history has been catalogued, with the way that the women of the world have been portrayed through a masculine gaze for too long. I want you to absorb the impact of watching two women recreate a tableau of an abortion so a third woman can paint the event as it occurred. I want you to be reminded of how women have long been considered transitionary items, passed as a good from one family to the next as a dowry, or worse, as a way of furthering a bloodline.
I feel that Portrait of a Lady on Fire encourages you to consider the weight of a minute. To recognise that when one passes, it is another minute less spent with those we love and care about. I want you to consider how this film makes you consider how to make each minute, each moment, count. To make each interaction feel important.
I don’t want to tell you about Portrait of a Lady on Fire because I want you to experience this truly beautiful, heartbreaking, love-affirming film. I want you to witness its empathy and care, and I want you to be swept away by Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel. I want you to love this film as much as I do, and I hope you understand at its conclusion why it feels like a precious secret, one that you want to keep to yourself out of respect for the characters, and for all the other people who have fallen in love.
Director: Céline Sciamma
Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami
Writer: Céline Sciamma