It’s rare that a film catches me by surprise. Usually, I’m pretty good at figuring out the intricacies, and pride myself on the fact that I can more often than not, correctly guess endings, pinpoint the last scene, and know exactly how the film will leave me feeling after I’ve left the theatre. Nothing could have prepared me for Céline Sciamma’s Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, or Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Endings are the most important parts of films. They determine the aftertaste in your mouth when you leave the cinema. If an ending is strong, viewers are sure to carry the film within them for weeks, livin inside its world for much longer than the set run time.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire tells the love story of two women in the 18th century: Marianne, a painter commissioned to paint a young mistress without her knowledge, and Héloise, the oblivious mistress in question who is set to be married soon. The two share daily walks and borderline philosophical conversations, finding a special form of freedom and understanding in confiding in each other. The slow burn of their relationship is prominent and overwhelming, leaving the viewer aching at every stolen glance, every lingering smile, every lustful expression. Their wanting and adoration radiates off of the two of them, and the entire story feels like a warm and tender memory. It’s almost as if we all collectively, as viewers, lived and experienced their love firsthand, entitled to bask in the emotions and remember the importance of feeling wanted and respected by another person.
However passionately I may be writing about this film’s takeaway, I admit that it wasn’t as clear to me during the process. I spent the entire film believing I was detached from the storyline. This was bittersweet, but I could certainly handle it. I trusted my past tendencies, and found comfort in the fact that the feelings would never catch up to me, because I had already predicted them.
Then came the final scene. In a callback to a previous scene, Vivaldi begins to flood through the speakers, and much like Héloise, the power and importance of the love story finally bleeds through, flooding out in the form of goosebumps and teardrops. My jaw dropped unwillingly and the knot in my throat squeezed me tighter. All of the regret and longing and history and remembrance of having both found and lost the love of your life piled up into a physical manifestation, catching both Héloise and I by surprise.
It’s rare for that kind of empathy between character and audience member to occur, but Sciamma perfectly manages to meticulously and intentionally walk us through the story and place a bit of it into our own hearts and memories to carry all the way home after the movie’s end.
With a silence filled credit sequence, I allowed myself to sit and regain composure in the dim lit cinema. I blinked in awe and realization. What an honor. What an honor to be able to live through the creation and screening of one of the greatest love stories of all time.