Film Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire – in association with the French Film Festival

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[Content warning for the film: suicide mention, abortion]

A young woman dressed in 18th century clothing jumps off a boat and into the cold water. This increasingly popular trope of period film heroines breaking out of their moulds can be seen in other dramas such as Mary Queen of Scots (2018) and The Favourite (2018), which both show eloquently dressed women firing guns or being covered in mud.

There’s something absurd and appealing in the contrast between the expected behaviour and the reality, and this is what makes the opening shot of Céline Sciamma’s film Portrait of a Lady on Fire so special. It is the story of an artist called Marianne (Noémie Merlant) who arrives on a remote island to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young woman who is to be married to a Milanese suitor. However, Marianne must create the portrait in secret, as Héloïse refuses to marry. Halfway through the film Marianne confesses her true motives. What’s next?, you might ask. Next is a story of love and farewells.

The intimacy between the two women develops as Marianne closely observes Héloïse’s features in order to paint them from memory – but she fails to notice that Héloïse is watching her back. Their falling in love is depicted through Claire Mathon’s breath-taking cinematography. Shots of the two women secretly observing on another on a beach almost resemble a painting in their abundance of light and depth. Silhouettes of the lovers and a young maid (Luàna Bajrami) against a polychromatic sky could have been painted by Marianne herself. 

Before the film begins, the Cannes logo flashes on screen. A winner of the 2019 Best Screenplay, the film does not disappoint in its description of an experience that is painfully familiar to the audience: counting hours until a loved one’s dreaded departure, and having to say good-bye to someone they would rather never part from. The film explores how Marianne and Héloïse become lovers and almost form a small family as they take care of the maid Sophie, who finds herself pregnant. However, a sense of time running out is palpable through the film, as the number of days the two women have together is constantly decreasing. 

Simultaneously, Sciamma examines the social setting of 18th century France, with a particular focus on the freedom of women in different social positions. Raised in a convent in isolation, Héloïse confesses she has never heard an orchestra and is deeply touched when Marianne plays a dusty harpsichord. Even Marianne’s very painting is a symbol of Héloïse’s inevitable fate. Her despair at her pre-determined destiny is reflected in her reckless behaviour – when she runs towards a cliff and stops abruptly, or when she strips and walks into the sea to discover whether she can swim.

However, perhaps the most haunting scene comprises of a bonfire in the village, where a group of women gather together to sing. The folk song, paired with the scene that gave the film its name, is guaranteed to give the audience chills. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the kind of a film that will linger in the mind of its viewer for a long time, thanks to its universal themes and mesmerising cinematography.

[Kristiina Kangasluoma – she/her – @overthefrogwall]

More information about the French Film Festival UK can be found here: frenchfilmfestival.org.uk.

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