What’s Up at the Movies: We Review “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”

It is impossible to talk about Portrait of a Lady on Fire without talking about women. After debuting at last year’s Cannes Festival and winning Best Screenplay, this French film by director Céline Sciamma is finally trickling into American theaters. Its writer-director is a woman, its producers are women, and, perhaps most notably, so is its cinematographer. The story recounts a brief, passionate affair between two women: Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), an aristocrat betrothed against her will to a man she has never seen; and Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter hired to secretly finish a portrait of the bride-to-be that will seal the engagement.

The isolated island they occupy in Brittany is, for nearly the entire runtime, an exclusively female space. Among many other things, this film is about what people mean when they say ours is a man’s world. Very gradually, as Marianne, Héloïse, and housemaid Sophie warm to each other’s company, the demands of class, dress, and manners that have shaped their lives fade away and they exist as equals. They openly discuss their histories, their bodies, their philosophies. The outside world feels distant but is always on the horizon. When a man does eventually appear, and the social order of the day rushes back in, the women close back up inside themselves. Even as a male viewer, the feeling of loss at this intrusion is profound.

It is also impossible to talk about Portrait of a Lady on Fire without talking about art. A portrait drives the plot, but the title describes another of Marianne’s works unearthed by her student years later, causing her to return to the island in memory. She is our guide through her past, and the camera takes on her artistic sensibilities, treating each frame as if it was to be shown in a gallery. Exploring the relationship between art and truth brings the film’s own objectivity into question: are we seeing what really was, or only Marianne’s impression of what was? Both director and protagonist paint with palpable perspective, the hand of the artist visible in each brushstroke— an approach, the film suggests, that is more about honesty than truth.

And, as if it wasn’t rich enough already, it is impossible to talk about Portrait of a Lady on Fire without talking about love. Sciamma’s film moves to the rhythm of its central relationship, lingering in anticipation, allowing things to build and grow until the two women discover they are already irrevocably intertwined. Time in their pocket utopia is precious and finite, and the outside world of men and career restrictions and arranged marriages looms over them. The film is laced with little premonitions of what is to come— I read them as Marianne’s cost of remembering, intrusions from her present-self that taint her experience of the past. Sciamma’s filmmaking is so measured, the performances of Merlant and Haenel so genuine, that your every response feels earned.

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Having exhausted the space available to me here, I urge you to see Portrait of a Lady on Fire for yourself. I think you’ll be surprised at just how much I’ve left unsaid.

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