Portrait of a Lady on Fire
The film opens with a hesitant gesture: an artist marking a swoop of charcoal on paper before setting it down. We meet Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who is teaching art to young women when she notices that one of them has displayed her painting without her permission – a piece she calls Portrait of a Lady on Fire. From this, we are plunged into Marianne’s memories. A boat tips from side to side in tumultuous waters, flinging Marianne’s canvasses overboard. She plunges in – still wearing her dress – to save them; they are her livelihood and passion.
This is France, 1770, and Marianne has been commissioned to paint an aristocrat for her prospective husband, a Milanese nobleman. The bride to be, Héloïse, is less than happy about this, having refused to pose for her previous painter, driving him to distraction. Marianne confronts his deformed effort in her journeys around the house. Appraised of her subject slowly, she senses Héloïse’s mystique through the whispering of her green taffeta dress brushing the walls of the home and descriptions of her wilful behaviour. Due to this, Marianne must paint Héloïse’s portrait without her knowledge. We first meet Héloïse through a long shot of the back of her head as Marianne walks behind her, watching the swirl of her cape’s hood. Eventually, the hood falls to uncover blonde hair, and then Héloïse turns, slowly revealing a beautiful, insolent face.
The script mentions Orpheus and Eurydice when Marianne states that he made the poet’s, not the lover’s choice in turning around. There is a lyrical, poetic quality to the shots: a stunning appearance of the cliffs over the tipping sea; the three women popping up from long grass at the same time.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is set at a ponderous pace, with close-up shots and a velvet sensuality throughout. A fierce love affair grows between Marianne and Héloïse, informed by the fact that they only have a few days before Héloïse’s mother returns and Marianne leaves. Héloïse suggests they take a plant that slows down time – a moving suggestion. Céline Sciamma’s poetic and beautiful script well deserves the Cannes award it received. Sciamma creates an enclave for women in a world that is not made for them; when a man appears in his pomp and wig, it punctures the idyll. The film explores how women are restricted in art and how its norms fix them under the male gaze. Héloïse dislikes the first portrait, as Marianne has softened her; she leads Marianne to truth and Marianne leads her to love.
The two leads, Merlant and Adèle Haenel, are hypnotic. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is elegant, fierce, passionate and moving and repays the investment of your time.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is released nationwide on 28th February 2020.
Watch the trailer for Portrait of a Lady on Fire here: