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Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a romantic gothic drama that will make viewers hearts sing and break in almost equal measure. It’s the tale of two lovers from different walks of life. They are brought together through a lie yet ultimately find something true under the façade. Yet, can their relationship bear the weight of their circumstances both personally and socially?
From the opening, viewers know it’s unlikely. At the end of the 18th century, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter, is teaching some students her craft. One of them asks about a work of hers, which Marianne calls with a hint of melancholy and world weariness: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”.
It’s here we jump back a few years to a slightly younger Marianne. Arriving on an isolated island in Brittany canvases in hand, she has been commissioned to paint a portrait. The subject is a young woman named Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) who has been plucked from a convent and is to be married off to a Milanese nobleman. Originally, her older sister was to be the bride. But she fell from the jagged cliffs of the island, an apparent suicide because, as the maid (Luàna Bajrami) says, she didn’t make a sound as she plunged to her death.
Marianne is informed by her subject’s countess mother (Valeria Golino) that Héloïse has previously refused to pose for portraits. She too does not want to become a wife. So, the painter acts as Héloïse’s hired companion, taking mental notes of her features on their daily walks so she can recreate her likeness on paper later in secret.
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma (Girlhood) and shot by Claire Mathon – who between this and Atlantics last year is a master at finding seemingly otherworldly beauty in naturalistic almost social realist settings – Portrait just drips sensuality. In many ways, it is a tale as old as time – probably because it’s such effective storytelling. Over the course of the drama’s two-hour run-time, we watch these characters – the artist who is brave and confident, the muse who’s haunted and unsure of herself – grow gradually closer.
This is against a terrifically heightened backdrop, a mansion surrounded by crashing waves housing a trapped maiden. It’s a place both haunted by a recent tragedy and the ghost of Héloïse’s future, a recurring vision Marianne sees of her subject wearing a white wedding dress signifying her eventual fate.
Yet, Sciamma breaks from tradition or at least updates it for the modern era, not least by making her central lovers women. For one, the film doesn’t exaggerate Marianne’s deception of Héloïse. Early on the painter finds herself unable to betray her subject and walking partner’s trust and spills the beans, saving viewers from some tired plot mechanics where Héloïse discovers the lie, leading to their rift.
Also noteworthy is the lack of men in the film, aside from some extras, and any villainous characters. Golino’s countess could have been a baddie in a lesser movie. Yet, it is obvious she cares for her daughter and believes, probably rightly, that marrying her off to a wealthy nobleman will give Héloïse and the rest of her family a comfortable life and stability.
There’s never a scene where Héloïse and Marianne’s affair is uncovered, or the pair are forbidden from seeing each other. Sciamma trusts the viewer is aware of the repression and social norms of the era in which the film is set. It’s great too because it makes their love feel intimate, something secret only to them.
Whether or not Sciamma is playing into or subverting the tropes of tales of doomed romance, the result feels exciting and profound in the way falling in love often does. She sprinkles nuggets of wisdom into the script too, a screenplay with little exposition and where every line carries massive weight. “You made me laugh,” Golino’s countess tells Marianne, after giggling at her own witticism: “It takes two to be funny,” a seemingly throwaway statement which says so much about the importance of connection. Another remark which feels achingly honest, true yet simple is when Héloïse asks Marianne in a moment of vulnerability before making love: “Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?”
It wouldn’t work as well though were it not for the central two performances. From the moment Marianne early on tries to raise a grieving Héloïse’s spirits by playing Vivaldi’s ‘Summer’ on piano, we know the pair are in love. Like in Call Me by Your Name, it’s all in the way the two gaze at one another, how they can’t help but smile in each other’s presence, the stolen touches they share.
As Marianne, Merlant projects such an air of poise and sureness that we automatically buy her as a fantastic painter. Yet, as the drama progresses, we watch her character’s knack for self-reliance (thankfully not her skills as an artist, if anything they improve because of Héloïse) fall by the wayside as she gives herself over to this blossoming romance.
Both women are equally strong in their roles. Yet, Haenel’s part is the showiest. The fire of the title refers to her, that despite her recent tragedy and impending arranged marriage, there’s a strength and warmth inside of her that just cannot be extinguished. Without spoiling, the final scene of the film – a bravura two-and-a-half-minute unbroken close-up of Haenel – reinforces this perfectly, wrapping up the story in a way which feels tragic yet somehow hopeful and beautiful.
As the credits roll on Portrait, viewers will no doubt find their hearts on fire too.