Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

There’s a moment in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, filmmaker Céline Sciamma’s exquisite new film, when painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) gives up on an early attempt to capture the likeness of her subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). She’s been commissioned to paint the young woman as a way of ensuring a favorable marriage for her, but Héloïse is so against the idea of marrying (she’s only recently returned from a convent following her sister’s untimely death) that her mother (Valeria Golino) insists she can’t know she’s being painted at all.

So Marianne has three-fourths of a portrait—a bodice and shoulders in an emerald green gown—but nothing above the neck, as daily walks with Héloïse are no substitute for a formal sitting to capture someone’s likeness. Frustrated, she throws the whole canvas into the fireplace, and as the flames make kindling of the wood and fabric, they first break through exactly over Héloïse’s heart, leaping up through this precise spot like a dare, a warning: there’s heat, destruction, danger, passion here; proceed with caution.

It’s a breathtaking moment, one that establishes Sciamma as a filmmaker entirely in control of the visual medium in which she creates. It also may escape a viewer at first, only to reveal itself as meaningful and unmistakably intentional as the connection between Héloïse and Marianne grows more intense and more complicated. Driven by riveting performances from both Merlant and Haenel, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is easily the most gorgeously realized romance of the year, a film that is as much about what we see on screen as what we don’t, and about the choices that remain available to us even when it seems life has been decided for us. Sciamma distills a complex exploration of class and gender inequity, romantic love and female solidarity down to its main players (essentially a cast of four women) and a sparse narrative (we never go far beyond Héloïse’s home), bringing all of those themes into exceptional focus in a period piece quite unlike its fussy, overstuffed counterparts.

When she arrives at the estate, Marianne occupies a strange in-between space, part household staff and part social acquaintance. She’s been hired to paint Héloïse’s portrait, after all, but Héloïse can’t know it. So she eats her breakfast in the kitchen with the maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), and walks with Héloïse along the bluffs by the sea by day. In the evening, she explains to La Comtesse that there isn’t much daylight left when she returns to work on the portrait. Slowly, she gains Héloïse’s trust and Héloïse in turn opens up about things like her sister’s death, her dreams for her life and more. The connection between the two is undeniable, a chemistry as vibrant and volatile as a rumbling volcano—magnificent to see erupt, even with everything in its path at stake.

With its simple color scheme, the women take center stage in their jewel-toned dresses (with pockets! not an anachronism, Sciamma asserted recently at a post-film Q&A in Chicago!), the framing often creating paintings of its own. One of the film’s most captivating moments (in a film with many of them) comes when Héloïse, Marianne and Sophie join a group of women on the beach around a bonfire at night. As Héloïse and Marianne catch each others’ gaze over the blazing fire, their connection now indisputable and about to cross into something far beyond friendship, the other women begin a trance-like choral song, one with only their rhythmic clapping to accompany them. It is an incredible moment, this sort of coven removed from any outside influences or expectations, and the women—both the group of them and Héloïse and Marianne specifically—seem to be becoming fully themselves, moving into a wholeness that the rest of the world is insistent on denying them. That this is also the scene where Héloïse, so entranced by her own internal awakenings, literally catches on fire (in, yes, a moment perfectly framed by cinematographer Claire Mathon) makes it nothing short of revelatory.

Portrait of a Lady On Fire is essential viewing, a phrase that is perhaps far too overused to mean anything anymore. To go a step further, it is a film that demands repeat viewings in order to truly unravel the mastery with which Sciamma builds her world, her characters, her exploration of women both in the context of society at large and totally separate from it. From Marianne’s position as the talented daughter of a father known for his portraiture and how different her life would be were she his son, to Sophie’s encounter with an unplanned pregnancy that threatens to derail the simple life she’s established for herself, Sciamma is not only unafraid to delve into the female experience, she insists you do, too. She proposes a wildly compelling convention, if we’re willing to indulge her: what the world might look like, from the subjects in paintings we regard as masterpieces to the potential for love in all its iterations and manifestations, if women had the chance not only to hold equal position in the world, but to lead it.

Anyway, Warren 2020.