Movie Review: Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)
With all this free time thanks to the COVID pandemic, it gave me a good chance to catch up on a lot of things undone. One of which was write reviews for films I didn’t review soon enough the first time. One such film is Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. I saw it in its entirety shortly after the Oscars. It’s a film that’s intriguing to watch.
The film begins with a painting class for young women. The teacher is Marianne, an acclaimed painter. The students are to paint a portrait of her. One of her students notices one of her paintings: that of a woman with her dress on fire. She asks Marianne what it’s titled. She responds “Portrait of a lady on fire.”
The film flashes to years earlier, when a man in a rowboat rows Marianne to a remote island in Brittany. She is commissioned to paint a portrait of a noblewoman named Heloise who is to be married off to Milanese nobleman. Her mother, the Countess, will allow her to stay in the building and be served by the maid Sophie. Painting Heloise will be a tricky thing. She does not want to pose for paintings as she does not want to be married off. She attended a convent, but her sister’s suicide prompted her return and her engagement.
Marianne decides it is possible. She just has to act as her companion and remember her features in order to paint her in secret. However Marianne notices the hurt inside Heloise as Heloise tries to jump off a cliff to her death. Marianne successfully stops her. Over time, Heloise learns of Marianne’s artistic passions including playing on the harpsichord. Marianne plays her the Presto of summer for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Heloise is captivated with it.
Marianne finishes the portrait, but feels she has to let Heloise know the truth of why she’s here. Heloise is critical of the painting and Marianne destroys it promptly. To the surprise of her mother, who is about to leave for Italy for some time, Heloise is willing to have Marianne do a portrait of her.
Over time as Marianne paints the portrait of Heloise, their bond grows. Especially over the reading of Orpheus and Eurydice. The maid Sophie reveals she’s pregnant and doesn’t want the baby. The two help her have an abortion through violent exercise. Sophie is included in the friendship with the two. The three go to a bonfire surrounded by women as they sing. It’s there Marianne sees Heloise with her dress on fire. Overnight, Marianne is haunted by images of Heloise in a wedding dress.
It’s when the two are alone together in a cave that Marianne confesses her love to Heloise. The two share their first kiss. The romance grows as Marianne continues with the portrait of Heloise. Marianne does other artwork too like sketching the performing of the abortion on Sophie and even sketching a naked picture of herself on page 28 in one of Heloise’s books, by her request. However the fun is cut short as Heloise’s mother returns. The portrait is completed and both Heloise and the Countess are happy with what they see.
SPOILER WARNING: Ending Revealed In This Paragraph. Marianne is about to leave with her work being completed, but then sees Heloise one last time: in a wedding dress just like in her dream. Marianne says she did see her twice since. The first time in a painting of her with her child and a book open to page 28. The second time was from a distance at a symphony concert. She could see from a distance she was overcome with emotion when the Summer suite of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was played.
There’s no question the film is LGBT themed. The film is a fictional story. Nevertheless it does tell a lot in what it shows. It’s a chance meeting between a painter and her reluctant hurting subject. It’s after the mother leaves that the place goes from a place under control to the place the three women can live out the lives they were meant to live. It’s there Heloise can reveal she’s a lesbian like Marianne and she loves her. It’s there when a pregnant Sophie can have her baby aborted at her will. It’s also a place where the common women all gather together at a bonfire and sing. It almost feels like a ‘womyn’s’ film. However it tells more. The women know that once the mother returns, everything will be back to the way it was. Marianne knows her love that was meant to be can’t be. And so does Heloise. We shouldn’t forget that even though this is a fictional story, this was a time when same-sex love was criminalized and abortion was illegal.
Another element of the film is how the story tells itself through art. It may be about a painter who’s hired to paint her subject, but it’s like art of all kind is important for the storytelling. It’s also music that stirs emotion. It’s the discussion about Orpheus and Eurydice between the two. It’s the various drawings Marianne did. It’s of the painting of Heloise that would reveal who her true love was. The mix of various forms of art and feeling, both of passion and of hurt, come into telling the story of this film. Even the bonfire song where the women celebrate, but Heloise makes obvious is still hurting inside, plays an important role. The scene where Heloise’s dress is burning, but she acts like she’s unaffected will remind you why it’s not the dress on fire but the lady on fire.
This film was out during the VIFF. I only saw the last half of it because I was busy during ushering during the first half. That’s why I don’t include it as part of my VIFF reviews. It was only in February just after the Oscars that I finally saw it in its entirety. I’m glad there was a second chance to see it. It’s too bad it was completely snubbed out of the Oscars. For those wondering what France’s entry for the Oscar of Best Foreign Language Film was, it was Les Miserables and it was nominated. This film however was a nominee for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Best Screenplay Award.
Top acclaim should be given to director/writer Celine Sciamma. A lesbian herself, she did a very good job not just bringing her story to life but also creating an array of imagery and adding an atmosphere to it. It’s quite an experience to watch. The acting from the two main actresses, Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel were excellent too. You could tell as much from their moments of silence as you can from their moments of dialogue. It will also leave you undecided which of the two is the lead actress, or if they’re both the lead actresses. Luama Bajrami is also a good addition to the film. She slowly makes her presence in. The biggest quality of the film is the cinematography from Claire Mathon. Her cinematography added the color and the feel to the film and has a lot to do with its excellence.
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a one-of-a-kind film that showcases great cinematography and allows for the images to contribute a lot to the storytelling. It’s a fictional story that’s very picturesque and worth admiring.