Drama/History, 1 hr 59 min

Synopsis: On an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the eighteenth century, a female painter is obliged to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman.


This was a feast for the senses and is nothing short of a work of art…

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma) is not just a story about love; although love is certainly a central theme. It is a love story about women, told by a woman, through a female gaze. It’s a lesbian love story but also a story about the strength of all women even when they are faced with near impossible circumstances and almost no choices at all. In this stunningly and hauntingly beautiful fourth feature film as writer-director, Sciamma calls out the misconception of a woman as merely a superficial muse for a man’s eye. She shows in beautiful detail that a woman has always given to the painting herself, a co-creation of sorts. But with two women creating a painting the result can be startlingly beautiful and raw. 

The story is set in France, 1760. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young repressed woman who has been left with the fate of her recently deceased sister. Héloïse has, up until now, been in the grips of the nuns in a sterile and cruel convent environment. Héloïse is a very reluctant bride to be and has refused to have the usual wedding portrait painted as she believes this will hasten her impending doom. In frustration, her seemingly cruel and unforgiving mother, La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) hires a female painter under the guise of companionship to observe Héloïse by day and secretly paint her by night. In one of the first scenes of our introduction to the enigmatic Marianne we find her sitting in front of a fire place, where, nakedly, she smokes a pipe and then proceeds to help herself to cheese, bread and wine in the kitchens. We are shown the strength of her character right away and the carefree independence and freedom she has. This is shown in striking juxtaposition to Héloïse’s life.

It becomes shockingly apparent that Héloïse has had little to no freedom whatsoever to read, to be on her own, to listen to music or even to run. In a startling scene, where we are witness to Héloïse running full tilt towards a sheer cliff face, she simply states to Marianne that she has always dreamt of doing that – To which Marianne asks, ‘Dying?’ – And when Héloïse simply replies ‘Running’ it is very telling and our heart already breaks for her. As the two orbit each other – as this can be the only way to describe the beautiful way in which the two seem to move around each other – unarguably attracted to each another, much as a planet orbits a moon willingly trapped in its gravitational pull, we are pulled in with them. We are witness to the intimacy and attraction growing between the two as they share Héloïse’s first moments of freedom. The sentiments of the time, the often hard fate of women, the untold love stories between women, and the influence of love on someone’s soul are all told here with overtones of decadent beauty.

The performances are nothing short of brilliantly superb. They inhabit these characters in a way that has you really feeling they are real. Everything is told in a perfect combination of long poignant stares and brief meaningful glances. The body language is so dynamic and so full of yearning that you can feel it as if it was within your own skin. The lighting, framing, and sets throughout the film are reminiscent of a painting within themselves and are sumptuously and meaningfully textured. The dialogue is used sparingly and when it is said it means something profound and enhances the stories momentum. There is little music in the film, perhaps in parallel to the main character Héloïse’s lack of it in her life, but when used it is used absolutely perfectly. In a scene on the beach where many women from all walks of life come together and sing a song called Non Possunt Fugere, which means they cannot escape in Latin, it is eerily beautiful and achingly felt. And when we hear Marianne’s favourite piece of music, which she plays for Héloïse, for the first time we see Héloïse falling in love with Marianne. At the end of the film, it is played again in a scene that was 2 minutes and 27 seconds long, in which we feel all the emotions that have been building up in the whole film. It’s simply stunningly and achingly beautiful to watch.

The power of a portrait itself is illuminated in the film. As we see, through the creation of the portrait, the two women work in partnership, and after seeing each other truly, fall in love. And a portrait becomes a testament to their love as we are witness to a heartbreaking but thrilling communication being shared between the two with the aid of a portrait later in the film. Women, the pure beauty and the power of them, are highlighted by Sciamma perfectly in the film over and over again. The characters, although of different classes and different aspirations and motivations, are shown to have solidarity with each other and the immense strength of women is poignantly underscored.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a decadent, tension filled love story, but also a story about how we fall in love and how that can impact us and shape our soul and echo within us for life. For me, the film was like watching a still painting come to life and I was swept up into every scene, every look, every touch, every colour, sound and sight on offer. This was a feast for the senses and is nothing short of a work of art.

This review was written by:



Reviewer and Writer

Alex has worked as a film stills photographer, written stories for a museum promotion campaign and has had her work featured on the cover of an Australian based lesbian magazine. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree, focusing on film, writing and photography from Perth's Edith Cowan University.

She is currently working on a documentary project centred on lesbian refugee women’s experiences, combining her love of documentary film, photography and her current role as an occupational therapist. All in all, she is passionate about film, especially lesbian-made and themed films.