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Remembering a Moment in ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

What makes a moment memorable? The most important moments of our lives are constantly retold over and over again, sometimes in our heads and sometimes as stories. Usually, these moments involve the people we love.

There are the big, life-changing moments like the day you make a life-long friend or the first time you kiss someone you love. Then there are the moments that might seem inconsequential to everyone but yourself. It could be something as simple as noticing how someone close to you acts when they are nervous or frustrated. It might be the way they look at you when you’re sad or feeling misunderstood. You cannot even begin to articulate why it’s important, but you are unable to get it out of your head. 

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire,’ written and directed by Celine Sciamma, is a film composed of these moments. The film follows Marianne, an artist who travels to an island off the coast of France to paint the wedding portrait of a woman named Héloïse. Héloïse refuses to have her portrait painted, so Marianne is posed by Heloise’s mother to be a companion that will accompany her on walks. Only at the beginning and end of the day can Marianne paint her portrait of Héloïse, and she has to do it all through memory.

From the second Marianne is introduced to the end credits of the film, each moment is depicted through a shot that encapsulates a beautiful painting. I couldn’t help but feel like each shot could be hung up in a museum, standing as its own portrait. Each one could be discussed and dissected at length, both as one of a whole and as an individual piece. Some would be the climactic scenes of the movie, but many would be of something much simpler. Three women prepping for dinner. Héloïse looking towards the sea, a scarf covering her face. A mother and daughter that look so similar, as if it is one woman staring into a mirror.

Courtesy of NEON

One after another, each scene is composed so brilliantly. I found myself wanting to pause the movie for a moment and just stare at each one for much longer than the film allowed. The feeling of wanting to linger in that moment is exactly what Sciamma focuses on in the film.

First, we have the perspective of the love interests in the movie, Marianne and Héloïse. Marianne must attempt to do a portrait of Héloïse while Héloïse is not present. She scrapes through her memories to recall something like the curvature of Héloïse’s ear. Then, we have the idea of a portrait itself. What makes a portrait of a person noteworthy? The film argues that it is about recalling a place, time, and personality. Truly understanding who the person in that portrait is.

If we take another step back, we can look at when Marianne and Héloïse are most vulnerable and passionate. Many of these scenes are the characters themselves remembering a moment important to them or even considering how they will remember each other in the future.

Each layer of this film, from the way the characters act to what the audience sees, all circle back to this idea of recalling and lingering on a moment.

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I’m a helplessly emotional moviegoer. One of the more recent movies I cried in was ‘Wreck it Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet.’ Movies just know what makes me tick! Give me a reunion between two friends, two brothers telling each other they care about one another, or a sick family pet and I will be weeping before you’re even supposed to. 

The issue I have with most of these movies is that they seem to be telling you “HEY, this is where you’re supposed to cry. We’ve only got 15 minutes left in this movie and I need some goddamn tears before the credits roll.” Sometimes I walk out of these movies feeling like they tricked me into feeling something for otherwise shallow characters and an uninspired plot.

I cried in ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire,’ but it wasn’t the final scene of the movie, or when Marianne and Héloïse fought, or when the two of them “truly fell in love.” The moment I cried was when Marianne casually asks Héloïse to look at her. Héloïse gazes at her with an expression that I still can’t fully describe. The best that I can say is that it is a stare filled to the brim with love and passion. Marianne falters once she locks eyes with Héloïse, like she has been hit with a boulder. Not a single word is said between the two of them at this moment, but it’s the moment that I can’t stop thinking of.

By the end of the film Héloïse has a moment that she will recall for the rest of her life and Marianne has her own. Every person who sees this movie will leave thinking of the specific moment that spoke to them the most. It might not be the climax of the movie or some point where you feel like Sciamma is trying to pull tears out of your eye sockets. It will be a scene that feels personal. Each moment was created with so much love that I couldn’t even guess which one means the most to you. This is what makes ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ one of the best romance movies I’ve seen in years.

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