If the chemistry between the two leads is there, the movie will be compelling. This has been seen countless times, with films set purely in a car or on a train being as compelling as the most twist-filled thrillers. There is little of consequence and very few stand-out set-pieces in Portrait of a Lady on Fire but this doesn’t matter when the chemistry is this good.
The story focuses on a portrait artist, Marianne, played by Noemie Merlant who travels to an isolated island to paint reluctant subject Heloise, played by Adele Haenel. The film follows their reluctant friendship as it develops into something more during a time-period when homosexuality was taboo. It is a film of stolen glances, suggestive dialogue and small but monumentally significant moments.
This sort of relationship on-screen is a fine balancing act because it can be a slow, plodding affair and at times Portrait is. There are scenes that seemingly go nowhere, where other scenes are very random and feel they lack some much needed context or dialogue for further clarification. There is clearly imagery and hidden subtext which I didn’t register which at times means the film is slightly cryptic but ineffective in being so.
The moments where the story is being moved along and the ramifications of this relationship, what it means and what it could lead to, are so much more compelling though and this is down to the two leads. They hold this movie and thrive under the tension and sexually charged scenes so successfully that you are rooting for the seemingly doomed relationship to succeed.
This great chemistry and tense plot is often paired with some well-staged scenes and fantastic cinematography. The sparse rooms come alive when portraits are painted, the harsh coastline also equals freedom for the pair and the titular scene itself is one of vivid colour in darkness. It is not often I comment on this sort of aspect of film but here it makes an impact.
It isn’t enough to stop the mind and attention wandering at points though and the film could still be as successful had it been cut more lean, with the more self-indulgent, sometimes dull scenes removed. It isn’t enough to detract entirely from a compelling love story told during a judgemental time period.
Overall, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film reliant on the two leads fantastic chemistry and is successful because of it. It is a film built on small moments and stolen glimpses which is both it’s success but also, at times, it’s detriment as it can become boring in places.
Rating – 3.5
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