Portrait begins its story with a group of young painters who ask their teacher Marianne about a painting of hers that she calls “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”. Her simple utterance of such words bring about emotions of sadness and a feeling of loss. We are transported inside the painting, moving back a number of years to understand what has provoked such a response from Marianne.
Much like the paintings that are created by Marianne, the film immediately strikes us with its visual style, using vast bright colours that help illuminate environments and showcase their subjects. Although Portrait is very much a period film, complete with extravagant set designs and costumes, this excess never distracts or hinders but is used to extenuate the rich and complex human emotions that the characters possess.
Marianne has been sent to an island in Brittany to paint a portrait of Héloïse, a young lady set to be married to a wealthy Milanese nobleman. However, this task must be kept secret as Héloïse fears her marriage and therefore does not wanted to be painted. In order to memorise her appearance, Marianne accompanies Héloïse around the island and this leads to the pair growing closer to each other.
This tale of companionship with hidden secrets is reminiscent of one of the last decade’s finest films The Handmaiden. Park Chan-wook’s film opts for the central female relationship to be a fairly early starting point for a tale of shocking twist and turns but Céline Sciamma takes a different approach using more subtle scenes containing delicate moments to highlight sexual desires and the feelings of oppression felt by the characters. Her approach feels sincere and the result is a relationship that feels genuine and moving. In a world where the behaviour of many directors has been called into question, Portrait has the sense of being a truly collaborative work.
Once the relationship reaches its most intense point, the film shines with a collection of scenes that are brought to life by the intricate gestures of the two lead actresses. From here the film seems unsure about which direction to head to tie up its overall narrative. In focussing on its biggest strength in the believability of its central performances, the film forgoes opportunities to explore the story using other cinematic elements to reach new dramatic levels.