Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the romance drama set in 18th-century French high society has all the boxes checked: stunning cinematography, elegant direction, well-written characters, stellar talent, and conversations that don’t always revolve around men. This passionate love story has no agenda other than to tell the story of two women who fall in love with art and one another. There is also subtle commentary about societal hierarchy and how women circumvent it.
Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives on the green, lush coast of Brittany, France to paint the portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the young daughter of a wealthy Italian countess (Valeria Golino). The twist is Marianne must paint Heloïse in secret and use her memory to construct the perfect image. The previous painter failed to complete a painting because Héloïse refused to pose for him. To ease her into the process this time around, Marianne is instructed to act as a companion, to observe Heloise facial expressions and body language.
Héloïse holds an excessive amount of anger and resentment about her current situation. She left the convent and returned home to mourn her sister’s death. She is also arranged to a man she has never met. With little options, she rebels by being as difficult as possible. This is done perhaps to prolong her freedom. The two women finally meet and begin their friendship with a walk on the beach, and it is this encounter where Marianne begins to study Héloïse. Marianne is curiously drawn to her beauty and impenetrable nature. As Marianne starts to peel back the layers to Héloïse’s personality, she learns that there is a method to Heloïse madness.
In a sense, Héloïse envies Marianne, her freedom to travel, and being separated from familial or societal obligations like marriage and children. At times, Marianne can be smug about her autonomy and dissonant to what Héloïse deals with as a woman in high society. But it is through this resistance to each others lifestyles that the women grow close and find commonality in art and philosophy. Each gaze between them becomes less curious and more smoldering. Each conversation becomes less about art and more about desire, until their relationship hits fever pitch, and there is no more reason to hide their feeling which is expressed with sensuality.
Sciamma handles this romance in an unconventional way by foregoing the normal rules that apply to romance films and queer cinema. This doesn’t revolve around just their love affair but the world they live in and how those external factors affect their budding romance. These women are written as humans beings having a loving experience, and aren’t sexualized because the script says so. Sciamma writing gives these characters the independence to determine the trajectory of their relationship without the heavy air of male energy, thus redirecting the gaze and putting the power in the hands of the women. And she picked the right talent for this story. Actresses Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel performances elevate this script beyond this Earthly plane. Together they exude a chemistry that few romance film couples establish.
Each scene is a cinematic oil painting. Cinematographer Claire Mathon captures the world as a canvas on which to create art. Scenes feature still shots where the audience can take in the environment, and admire it as Héloïse and Marianne admire one another. There is something to be said about the presence of women behind the camera as this is a production governed mainly by women, producers, and crew roles which make the apparent difference in how the love affair between these two women is shaped.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire has been acquired by Hulu and Neon and is looking at a US release sometime this fall. Too bad it is not in time for Pride month in June as a film like this could revel in pride spotlight. This movie is a full cinematic experience and deserves to be viewed on the big screen so an audience can immerse themselves in the sublime. You won’t be able to shake the sense of euphoric triumph as love isn’t tragically stripped from Héloïse and Marianne but continues throughout time their way, on their terms.