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  • Writer's pictureS.J.

Quick Reviews: 'Portrait Of A Lady On Fire', 'Little Women' | Céline Sciamma, Greta Gerwig, Drama

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant crying, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson frowning
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (L), Little Women (R)


Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu in French) is an amazing kind of marriage where one half is exquisite artistry and the other half’s a romance slowly bursting into a bonfire. Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, it unveils a story about an artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) who is hired secretly to do a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), one that would be a gift for her assigned future husband. The film looks gorgeous in both candlelight and sunlight, never letting its flames to be smothered.

Both Merlant and Haenel are terrific in their roles, not letting a smile slip in front of the other one for quite a while. Their movement is almost dance-like where the one taking the lead is changing from scene to scene and they never overact their feelings or underplay the meaningfulness. Their individual highlights are connected by Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’, Merlant in an earlier scene where she plays it on harpsichord and Haenel in the very last scene of the movie. The main duo is supported well by Luàna Bajrami who plays a maid named Sophie. Her storyline could’ve easily been the film’s misstep but it’s wonderfully implemented in the main storyline while the acting is up to par as well.

These storylines living harmoniously is thanks to Sciamma’s screenplay which is rich, smart and caring. There are no rapid fire exchanges at any point but the words on the page are all there for a reason and never underestimate the talent that is acting them out.

Claire Mathon’s cinematography bleeds colours and glow, especially in all the beach scenes. Every shot that is outdoors could be perfect for a painting and shots indoors never let the characters out of viewer’s gaze. The close-up shot at the beach where Marianne’s face is closer to camera and Héloïse’s is behind hers, is one of the best of the year (also featured in the trailer). Sciamma’s directorial vision is apparent everywhere, all the movements and framings of the camera are very classy and seem carefully chosen. Also, the paintings featured in the film are done by Hélène Delmaire and she does a great job by capturing the character of Héloïse so beautifully.

Smileys: Screenplay, acting, cinematography, directing, dialogue

Frowneys: Nothing

You’re probably expecting some fire emojis here but I’ll keep it classy too.


Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant crying and embracing each other at a beach


First thing I’ll say in this is perhaps sacrilegious: never before have I read the book or seen any adaptations of it on screen or stage. So this 2019’s Little Women is my first introduction to it which is why I went into it completely blind and with no expectations. The film was a major surprise as it’s such a good time and clearly cohesive piece of filmmaking. I had seen Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut 'Lady Bird' and there’s a pretty visible through-line between them even besides the choice of actors.

It’ll be really hard to talk about some of the actors in a second while not saying anything about others. The cast from front to back is an exceptional unit that would easily crumble in the hands of a less certain director. It’s a delight to see scene after scene where the opposing actors continue to match each other’s level while also revealing more about the characters.

Saoirse Ronan (as Jo) leads the movie with the same star quality as she did in Lady Bird, portraying Jo as an ambitious but conflicted young woman. Timothée Chalamet (Laurie) gets the same quality of material to work with as he gets in his lead roles, which helps to create a nice contrast between his and Ronan's characters. Florence Pugh (Amy) definitely has a much different character to play as she has had in her other projects; Amy’s quirkiness mixed with fury comes across well in her performance, notably when compared to more subdued Emma Watson (Meg) who balances Amy's personality with some warmth. Louis Garrel (Friedrich) stands out in a small but important role in relation to others’ storylines but that isn’t a surprise as everyone has great chemistry with each other on screen.

Gerwig’s directing seems even more refined now whereas in Lady Bird her screenplay shone brighter. Again, I haven’t seen other adaptations but what was especially striking were the scenes where the whole March family was in one room (with or without the dad who is played by Bob Odenkirk). Everyone was placed for the viewer to see and had their voices heard. Alexandre Desplat’s score became increasingly bigger and crucial as the story unravelled, thundering gloriously in the last third in scenes with little to no dialogue. It was nice to see that while it started out as being just typical period drama compositions, it grew out of that along with the characters as they also grew.

One thing that felt less realised—and I don’t know if this is how it’s in the book—was the structure where the time jumps occur quite randomly. It made the connection to characters and their journey feel less exciting while also making me distanced from the dialogue for a minute as I tried to understand where we are in the timeline.

Smileys: Performance by a cast, directing, score, characterisation

Frowneys: Structure

I wonder if neither Ronan nor Chalamet get to be heartbroken in the next film in the Gerwig Cinematic Universe.


Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson in gowns
Sony Pictures

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