A love story set in the 18th century about Marianne, a painter, and the aristocratic Heloïse, whose pre-wedding portrait she has been commissioned to paint. Heloïse, unwilling to marry, has consistently refused to sit – so Marianne paints her secretly, having been introduced as a hired companion.
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a lushly filmed, slow burn (sorry) historical romance that will leave all but the most hard-hearted swooning.
Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a strong willed, independent painter (almost the first time we see her, she is jumping off a boat into heavy seas to save her painting supplies, which have been knocked overboard).
She is commissioned to travel to a remote island in Brittany to paint the portrait of a young bride to be, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), only to discover that Héloïse has other ideas. Having been dragged out of a convent to take the place of her dead sister in the marriage arrangement, Héloïse has no interest in being married to a man she has never met and shipped off to Milan to meet her new husband, so she refuses to sit for a portrait.
But Héloïse’s mama (Valeria Golino), who made the Brittany-Milan journey in reverse decades earlier on the occasion of her own marriage, is not one to let a daughter’s stubbornness get in the way of a societally necessary arrangement (it’s the 18th century and women have roles to fulfil, after all). She instructs Marianne to study her daughter covertly, under the guise of being a walking companion, and paint her in secret.
It’s this thumping great metaphor for forbidden love and the queer gaze that kickstarts a stuttering but ultimately consuming romance, as the two women – left all but alone as La Comtesse leaves the island to attend business on the mainland – warily circle one another before giving into their passions.
The film has won a raft of awards, and it’s easy to see why. Sciamma, who also wrote the screenplay, won not just best screenplay at Cannes but also the Queer Palm – being the first woman to do so, a reminder that while LGBTQ+ stories are finally getting more exposure, those that do are still, too often, focused on – or slantingly targeted at – men.
Portrait feels not just exceptional for its beauty, but for its focus. (Cinematographer Claire Mathon has also been rightly recognised for her work, having won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and Boston Society of Film Critics awards for best cinematography and been nominated for a ton more.)
Rarely does a film feel so entirely centred on the female gaze. Men are almost entirely absent, and on the rare occasion they appear, they are either a bit useless or an active hindrance (the boat-hand who leaves Marianne to struggle with her things and who is, it is implied, the cause of housemaid Sophie’s unwanted pregnancy, a male patron at a gallery who patronises Marianne).
This is a film not just about female desire but about female community. La Comtesse is not a bad woman, just a pragmatic one: having lost one daughter to suspected suicide, she is cautious about the prospects of her other one. The lovers may be isolated on the island, but they are not alone. Freed from the shackles of convention, they become almost-friends with Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) and through her meet the wider community of local women.
While the central romance is passionate and compelling, there’s something perhaps even more special in the way it treats wider female relationships, and the thousand tiny webs that are formed by necessity. There’s a sense that it is not just lesbian love that is transgressive, but a hundred different behaviours, carried out away from male eyes – from the island’s women gathering to sing by the fire in the darkness, or the matter of fact way they resolve Sophie’s pregnancy.
Marianne painting an abortion, an everyday fact of so many women’s lives in pre-contraception days, feels as transgressive as her affair with Héloïse, and the film itself feels radical for neither sensationalising nor stigmatising it.
While both Golino and Bajrami are exceptional, it is of course Merland and Haenel who carry the day. In a film where the camera clings tightly to their faces, both give sensuous, radiant performances, beautifully capturing every stage of their affair, from sharp, hidden glances to the lazy luxuriating of lovers, heady in their desire.
And though it’s obvious their love is doomed from the start, the film offers some redemption – the idea that even in later life both women look back with love, not (just) regret, making the relationship feel ultimately more transcendent than tragic.
Tracey Sinclair is a freelance writer and editor. She writes regularly for online and print publications including Exeunt and The Stage, and is the author of eight books. A former subtitler and eternal geek, Tracey has a particular interest in Korean, Japanese and French films and anything to do with space or superheroes. You can follow her on Twitter under the profoundly misleading name @thriftygal
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