Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a young portrait artist in the eighteenth century. She is commissioned by a Countess (Valeria Golino) to secretly paint her reclusive daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Marianne poses as her walking companion on the remote island, each day memorising her face and painting her by night. As Héloïse’s arranged marriage to a Milanese noble looms, the two women find a connection that will affect both of their lives.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire has the power to remind you of the power of film. It’s a truly affecting story that it’s perfectly plotted, insightful, clever and incredibly earnest. It succeeds as a tragic love story, a haunting character study, a sublime period piece and a call to arms for the liberation of the female voice. It’s a film about art, mythology and love in the bleakest of places. It’s about desire suppressed and freed through art and about the power of art.
Early on Marianne is unmoved by the sudden appearance of a mirror but is terrified when approaching a canvas. Painting has the power to be more revealing than the mirror. Marianne’s act of painting Héloïse secretly is a violating act. Painting exposes but it also traps it’s subject. Memories serve a similar function. They preserve and torment. Marianne is haunted throughout the film by an image she has yet to see, but is inevitable from the moment she meets Héloïse.
It’s also a film about chauvinism without any Male presence. It’s a systemic misogyny that traps women’s minds and stifles their ability to effectively express themselves. Marianne is forced to paint her subjects bound by expectations and formalities that make it impossible to truly see another person, express anything honest or become a great artist. The film ties sexual liberty to artistic freedom via a divine use of colour and light that becomes more striking and vivid as the ladies break away from their constraints.
The remote island is a bleak but powerful landscape with dramatic beaches and a largely unseen community of women without men. A powerful sequence sees the main characters attend a ritualised gathering of women that becomes an extraordinary music performance. Marianne and Héloïse’s costumes are beautiful but constricting. Moments of true freedom see them abandoning clothes, including a memorable scene early in the film where a newly arrived Marianne smokes naked in front of the fire. Céline Sciamma’s frame is appropriately painterly and provocative.
The story of Orpheus makes a memorable appearance, read by Héloïse to Marianne and Sophie the maid. It’s a story in which the act of looking is lethal but via the women’s conversation becomes about impermanence. The film is reminiscent of Call Me By Your Name in a very specific way. Both couples have limited time and ultimately regret surrendering so much time to fear. It’s a sorrowful film about how a brief flame can illuminate an entire lifetime.