There are very few films brimming with the type of passion and romance as Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The film is many things, and sometimes it is all of them at once, but above all it is a love story between two women, and the everlasting bond they form which fills them with purpose and freedom that is usually denied to them in a marginalized, and repressed society.
The film is set in the eighteenth century and tells the story of Marianne (Noemie Merlant), a young painter, who is commisioned by a countess (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter Heloise (Adele Haenel). The portrait is meant as leverage in order for Heloise to be married off to an eligable bachelor, which is a prospect that doesn’t suit her, and she rebels by refusing to sit for any artist who tries to paint her. In order to capture her portrait without Heloise finding out, Marianne disguises herself as her handmaiden so that she can get close enough to capture her features. She soon is able to gain her trust, and the two become friendly. At the same time this is all happening, Marianne is making mental images of Heloise for her painting, but she also begins to fall in love with her.
Much of what I loved about Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the intense build up to the romance between Marianne and Heloise. The film is told through Marianne’s point of view, and we are introduced to Heloise the same time she is, but it’s with an air of mystery. When Marianne firsts sees her it’s from behind, as she is seen from a doorway, which she opens, exposing herself to the outside, and going from closed in to wide open. She begins running maddingly to a cliff, which has a forboding presence in the film as we learn that Heloise had a sister who killed herself by falling off of one. It’s only when she gets to the edge of the cliff that she stops and turns her head, which is when Marianne sees her clearly the first time, backdropped against a raging wind, we, as if she has been holding in a fury within her for such a long time.
During another early moment they are together, Heloise’s face is hidden behind a scarf, letting only her eyes be seen. It’s a haunting image, but it’s clear she is guarding herself, making her an anomaly for Marianne to see. Yet the camera becomes our conduit for what Marianne is able to reveal about her, with the way she hones in on her face, or the position of her hands, or her mouth. It’s a slow reveal, but we see through her art, how her fascination turns into love for her subject, and she is able to see the person Heloise really is, and as their relationship grows, she slowly lets her guard down.
Their love begins to bloom during a time where they are left alone, along with a young housekeeper named Sophie (Luana Bajrami). Here they form a bond and a way of life that can exist outside of social norms, and where they can be happy and content with each other. The film makes a fine point to show that each woman is stuck in their own repressed society. Marianne is an artist, but she knows that her gender keeps her from acheiving the type of success that is afforded to a man. Heloise knows that eventually she is to be married off, as that is what is expected of her, and even if she resists, she knows she can’t escape it. Even Sophie is seen trapped in a world of her class, and in a side plot must get an abortion in order to keep her station in life.
The film acts as sort of a repreive for all of them to be able to live the life of their choosing before reality catches up to them, something we as viewers hope will never happen but know it’s inevitable. This fact is illustrated by a haunting image which is repeated in the film of Heloise dressed in white and appearing as sort of a forboding apparition in front of Marianne. It hints of a final goodbye, one that we know is coming, and one that cannot be stopped.
The film was written and directed by Celine Sciamma, who’s last film Girlhood was a firey coming of age film. Sciamma brings the same intensity with this film, perhaps even more so. It’s at times sumptuous, and truly gorgeous to look at with its stunning cinematography by Claire Mathon, and rich vistas of a french island. I especially appreciated the rich visual flares, and cinematic language Sciamma brings out to show the psychology of the characters. There is a particular beautiful moment, when the women attend a bond fire, and a few of the villagers begin a song which starts off as sort of a chant. As the music plays, Marianne notices Heloise behind a fire, somewhat distorted by the haze, yet I feel like it’s the first time in the film she sees her fully, and without compromise. It’s one of the best singular scenes I’ve seen in a film all year, and shows the power behind Sciamma’s brilliant filmmaking.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film pulsating with passion both in the story of these two women, and in the way the film presents itself. It’s a searing work of art, which bubbles up from the bottom of the soul and overflows with waves of emotion that leave you devastated in the end. This is an exquisite film on all levels from the spectrum, not to be missed.
5 stars out of 5