Portrait of a Lady on Fire: an endearing love story about female resistance and defiance ★★★★★

By Beatriz Silva

It was in the glances exchanged between Marianne and Héloïse that I knew Portrait of a Lady on Fire was going to be more than just a film I watched on a Thursday night. There is more to it than a love story between two women. Charged with political subtext, the film engages with the paradigm of female self-determination in 18th-century France, creating powerful moments of solidarity and sisterhood. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a quiet revolution in subverting the historical period drama and transposing the themes it explores into our times. 

A few minutes into the film, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) jumps off a tiny boat on its way to an island off the Brittany coast, to rescue her painting supplies that had been knocked overboard. The image of Holly Hunter leaping into the ocean in Jane Campion’s The Piano immediately flashed through my mind. Marianne eventually makes it to land, utterly wet, but showing determination to fulfil the task set upon her. She is a painter who has been commissioned to paint the portrait of the bride to be Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Héloïse’s future husband wants to see a portrait of her before the marriage, but the young woman refuses to pose for anyone as a form of protest against her arranged marriage. As so, Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino) instructs Marianne to paint her daughter in secret, by studying Héloïse covertly under the guise of being a walking companion. 

As Marianne attempts to do this, she and Héloïse develop a rare complicity beginning  with intrigued glances, and that matures into desire that can no longer be contained. Falling accidentally in love through Céline Sciamma’s female gaze is refreshing and mesmerising. Her meticulous and detail-oriented approach as director shines through in each scene. Every camera shot has been carefully curated, and is a wholly radical embrace of the female experience and female autonomy. 

There are multiple layers to this film that exist in conjunction with and at the same time expand beyond Marianne and Héloïse’s love story. As the plot unfolds, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), a young housemaid, becomes increasingly more important. Or better yet, we come to actually see her. When The Countesse, Héloïse’s mother, has to leave the island for a few days and the three characters find themselves alone, the 18th-century social and class barriers come crumbling down. Sophie, Marianne, and Héloïse now cook and eat together, play cards, read and discuss the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and confide in one another. Crucially, they stand equally, side by side. Sophie’s abortion provides a visceral layer to their newfound sense of sisterhood, immortalised when Marianne paints the abortion scene. Here, Sciamma gently nods to the fragility of reproductive freedom – Sophie will have a baby one day, but only when she is ready to become a mother.

What moves the story forward in Portrait is painterly images, gestures, camera angles, and lighting choices, rather than dialogue. In fact, the most powerful scenes take place mostly in silence. When the characters do speak, you feel a need to go back and rewatch the scene to be able to take in and truly discern the dialogue’s eloquence and the symbolic importance of each interaction.

A transgressive lesbian love affair in the late 18th-century was bound to be flimsy and ultimately short-lived, but the ending of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not tragic – it’s rather transcendent. There is something fierce and brave about these characters who encourage one another to defy social moulds and to break conventions unapologetically. It’s in every small act of defiance throughout the film: in the way that Marianne ends up painting Héloïse and how she navigates an exclusionary and elitist art scene; it’s in the singing around the bonfire; it’s in the strength these women find in the safe, free and equal community they create on that island. Finally, it’s in that moment close to the end, where you find yourself overwhelmed with emotion, and promise to always be a part of the resistance too.

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