PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE – A Review by Cynthia Flores

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE – A Review by Cynthia Flores

This is a beautiful French-language historical drama set in the late 18th century. It’s more than just a story of a forbidden affair between two women in a time when that was not done. It’s also a commentary on the patriarchal society that they were forced to navigate. Writer/director Céline Sciamma is known for tackling the modern politics of female sexuality in movies like Tomboy (2011), Girlhood (2014), and all the way back to Water Lilies (2007), which is where she first worked with this film’s lead actress, Adele Haenel, when she was just nineteen years old. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the first time the director has gone back in history to tell a story.  I hope it will not be the last. In her writing for this film, she shows her talent for getting to the heart of forbidden love and the roles women were forced to play.

The story is told in flashback through the perspective of Marianne (Noémie Merlant). A painter herself, she’s the daughter of a well-known painter. However, at the time, she is mostly relegated to doing portraits of women professionally. She’s been called to an isolated coastal Brittany village to do the wedding portrait of a young woman named Heloise (Adèle Haenel).  Marianne has already been warned by the quiet servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) that another male portraitist has failed to get her on canvas. Heloise will not sit for the painting because she knows it is to be sent off to a man she does not know or love to approve of her for marriage. In fact, her sister committed suicide by jumping off the cliffs in order to avoid being shipped off to marry.

La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) will do her duty and thinks she has made a good match for her only remaining daughter. At least he lives in Italy, where her mother came from, and she will live in a big city where there are lots of things to see and do unlike there on the island. La Comtesse has told her daughter that Marianne is a companion that will walk with her so she can get out of the house finally. Marianne must-watch Heloise on their outings and when they’re together to take note of every feature so when she’s alone she can paint the portrait of the reluctant bride. As the two women become friends an attraction begins. La Comtesse must leave the estate and the girls for five days to tend to business elsewhere. Within that time she expects Marianne to complete the portrait of her daughter. In those five days, a lifetime of friendship that turns into love is explored.

The relationship between the two women goes beyond the myth of the one-way relationship between an artist and their muse. Heloise is a collaborator and not just a pretty thing to inspire the painter. She pushes Marianne to dig deeper into her art to put more of herself on the canvas besides only the techniques she has mastered. Even Sophie, the servant, uses this time off to bring the two women into her complicated life. Because this story is historically correct Marianne and Heloise, despite their love for each other, must play the parts that the society of that time placed them in. At the end of the film, there’s a bittersweet epilogue of the two women and the paths they took.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is also a beautiful looking film. The cinematography was done by Claire Mathon and is lush and gives us scenes that look like they jumped straight out of paintings that hang on museum walls. I really liked this film. So if you enjoyed movies like The Piano (1993) by Jane Campion or Carol (2015) by Todd Haynes, then this movie is for you.

I give Portrait of a Lady on Fire a 5-star rating. It’s a heart-shattering love story not to be missed.


Directed by: Céline Sciamma

Written by: Céline Sciamma

Rated R

Selig Rating 5 Stars

Running Time: 2hr 1min

Drama / Romance

Limited To Wide Release: February 21st  AMC NorthPark 15, Angelika Film Center & Café – Dallas/Plano, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Cedars

Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami


The Selig Rating Scale:

5 Stars – Excellent movie, well worth the price.

4 Stars – Good movie

3 Stars – OK movie

2 Stars – No need to rush. Save it for a rainy day.

1 Star – Good that I saw it on the big screen but wish I hadn’t paid for it.

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