Review: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”

5 out of 5 stars.

In “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” we know that Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship is doomed from the start.  But that doesn’t make their interactions onscreen any less passionate or romantic; if anything, they are even more so, as the time that they have left together dwindles away.

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, this French-language film is set on an estate on a remote island in Brittany in the late 18th century.  Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter who has been hired by a Countess (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel).  Héloïse will not sit for her portrait, however; the painting is for a Milanese nobleman she is to marry in the wake of her older sister’s suicide, and Héloïse is against the marriage.  Under the pretense that she is a companion for walks, Marianne is to spend time with Héloïse and memorize her features.  There is an immediate attraction between the two women, and they open up to each other more in the coming days.  When the Countess leaves for a week, they soon engage in a passionate affair, but they know it cannot last, as Marianne is creating the very thing that will keep them apart.

Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) and Marianne (Noémie Merlant)

There is a lot of beautifully written dialogue in Sciamma’s screenplay (and the comparison of Marianne and Héloïse with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is a poignant one) but there is so much said about Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship without Merlant and Haenel needing to say a word.  There is a lot of looking in this movie (stolen glances, shared looks, intense pondering), and the way that Merlant and Haenel gaze at each other (sometimes playfully, often longingly, occasionally quizzically) speaks volumes.  This story centers around a lesbian relationship, and is one of the most authentic examples of the female gaze I’ve seen, not just due to the female presence behind the camera (this film notably has a female cinematographer, Claire Mathon), but also due to the fact that Sciamma and Haenel are lesbians as well.  We also see a heartening friendship develop between Marianne and the young maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) when Marianne and Héloïse help her in a time of need.  The cast is intimate, and there are no male characters (the only men we see on screen are in crowd shots that bookend the story) but the oppression women face from men is present nonetheless, whether it’s Héloïse being forced to marry well, or the relatively independent Marianne being restricted from having more success with her art by men.  Both Merlant and Haenel are outstanding; they have an undeniable presence on screen, and an easy way with each other that makes their characters’ attraction to each other believable.

Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” also beautifully depicts art and creation.  Artist Hélène Delmaire created the paintings and drawings used in the film, and her hands are depicted onscreen when Marianne is drawing.  Art takes on many different uses throughout the film.  It shows the distinction between how men and women are treated in society.  It reveals a person’s status.  It is used to make memories in the absence of photographs.  It reveals the artist’s interests and passions; sometimes, Marianne gazes at Héloïse when she paints her the same way she regards her outside of her work.  Art is also the main source of tension between Marianne and Héloïse, as Marianne spends the film creating the painting that will ultimately take Héloïse away from her.

Mathon’s cinematography helps make “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” one of the most gorgeous movies you will ever see.  The large and mostly empty house by the sea evokes images of classic gothic romance.  The frequently cold interior of the home, where society’s rules are ever invasive, is contrasted with the sunny seaside, where the characters are able to run free.  Lighting is used effectively as well, with many scenes appearing to be lit solely by candles or firelight, creating an appropriately moody atmosphere.  Some shots—to avoid spoilers, I’ll merely say that they involve a wedding dress—are downright haunting. 

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a slow burn that eventually erupts in flames of passion that refuse to cool down long after Marianne and Héloïse have parted on screen, and long after the audience walks out of the theater.  It’s a beautiful achievement that is perfectly paced, written, directed, and acted.  And even though we know that the two women cannot possibly be together forever, the film doesn’t end feeling tragic or sad, but rather confident in the knowledge that Marianne and Héloïse are soul mates who will in a way will always belong to each other. 

Runtime: 122 minutes. Rated R.

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