On an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the eighteenth century, a female painter is obliged to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman.
‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is the kind of film that will be studied in film classes for years to come, a gorgeously constructed tale of a forbidden romance that crackles with passion and intensity. Set on an island off the coast of Brittany, France, the film tells the story of a painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who is recruited to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in advance of her marriage to a Milanese nobleman. Héloïse has previously refused to pose for portraits so her mother tells her Marianne is to be her companion for walks, with Héloïse unaware of Marianne’s true purpose.
Héloïse doesn’t enter the frame for the first part of the film, and we learn a lot about her secondhand through her mother and the maids that service her, so when Marianne does meet her, her opinion has already been partly formed. This blends into her first attempt at a portrait, which doesn’t truly capture the person Héloïse is. As the two woman spend more time together an understanding grows, and perhaps something more, and it’s electrifying watching both women dance around their true feelings. Everything that happens in ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ happens for a reason, and everything is paid off further down the line in richly rewarding ways.
It’s a film full of hidden meanings and metaphors, with the subtext every bit as important as what happens in the foreground of every scene. It’s a film that says as much with what it doesn’t say as it says with what it does, with literally every line spoken by Marianne and Héloïse masking their character’s true feelings and intentions. The performances from Merlant and Haenel are mesmerising, using subtle looks and glances to bring their romance to life beautifully and I found it utterly captivating.
‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is a masterfully crafted period romance from director Celine Sciamma, powerfully acted and incredibly moving, and I thought it was excellent.
Directed By: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami and Valeria Golino