• Audrey Walter

Portrait of a Lady on Fire Review

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

Female Solidarity and Womanly Love

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film by Céline Sciamma and stars Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel as the two leads, Marianne and Héloïse. I was introduced to this movie while sitting in the theatre waiting to watch Parasite. The trailer was quite magnificent and captivated me. It made my boyfriend and I look at each other immediately to say “We need to see that.” The music in the trailer was loud and powerful and the imagery was just as compelling. It was also exciting to see that the film was French, since I am a fan of French cinema (Martyrs, Amelie, and Blue is the Warmest Colour, to name a few.)

Yet, the movie itself did not hold the same tone as the trailer.

Spoilers Ahead!

Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes place in France during the 1770s as we follow a painter named Marianne who has to do a portrait of a young bride-to-be named Héloïse. Back in those days, people sent portraits to future spouses before they met. Héloïse just returned from the convent because her sister had committed suicide. Since her sister could not marry, this means Héloïse must take her place. La Comtesse, Héloïse’s mother, tells Marianne not to inform her daughter of the portrait and to do it in secret. So the premise of this movie is an artist doing a portrait in secret.

It was quite clear from the trailer that Marianne and Héloïse would be attracted to each other. Yet it’s the journey to that love that makes this movie interesting. Because of when the film took place, gay relationships were hardly ever spoken about or even recognized.

Although I did wonder if the French had a more lax opinion on it.

Throughout this LGBT love story, I saw many feminist themes. The first theme shown is the choice of marriage. Marianne isn’t interested in marriage. It seems that Héloïse isn’t either, at least in the form of an arranged marriage. But Marianne has a choice and Héloïse does not.

Héloïse tells Marianne how difficult it is to not have a choice and how it would be hard for her to understand. We see that Marianne is an artist and will take over her father’s workshop, yet Héloïse has no choice but to marry a man.

Marriage is something that many women today still have no choice over. In some countries, if you refuse marriage, you will bring shame to your family. Or worse, you will be murdered. In the film’s case, it was more an issue of shame.

Héloïse’s sister was also set to be married. But she disapproved of her marriage so much that she ended up committing suicide by jumping off a cliff. She would rather choose to die than have no choice while living. Before her sister’s death, Héloïse stayed at a convent where she felt more equal and free to choose.

Choice is another strong theme in this movie. The option for women to choose is often taken away from them by family or men. There are some lucky girls, like Marianne, who live a progressive life and have the privilege to choose their future.

Marianne painting Héloïse by memory

Marianne tries to understand Héloïse’s predicament as much as possible whilst giving into it at the same time. The action of painting Héloïse’s portrait shows the passiveness that many women have to take to keep the calm. If Marianne did not paint it, La Comtesse would find another painter that would. Marianne had to sacrifice both her and Héloïse’s feelings for the choice that would be made. With this, we see the relationship begin to bloom as well as dwindle at the same time. The bittersweet moments of the two women getting closer to each other only create sadness for the audience as they know what is to come. We hope for a good ending, but know it won’t come. I’m sure this is how many gay relationships turned out in those days.

The next theme is female solidarity. While living with Héloïse and La Comtesse, Marianne meets a maid named Sophie. She’s a very monotone girl who is generally on the sidelines throughout the movie, except when faced with a dilemma: her pregnancy. She informs Marianne that she hasn’t had a period for a couple of months, knowing she is pregnant. But she doesn’t want to keep the baby. Of course, abortion is a very feminist issue as well, but the way the movie handled it made solidarity more important than the abortion itself.

Héloïse, Marianne, and Sophie

Immediately, with no judgment, Marianne and Héloïse begin to put Sophie through many teachings to induce a miscarriage. First, they make her do strenuous exercise until she’s unable to continue. Then, they make her drink an herb and have her hang in the air. The herb makes her pass out, and they take her to her room to sleep.

It’s revealed that Marianne has done this same thing on herself because of an unwanted pregnancy. It was interesting watching the way women of that day and age would deal with an unwanted pregnancy. But it also made me feel grateful for the medical achievements we have now.

I loved the fact that Héloïse and Marianne helped Sophie without question or judgment. Even Héloïse, who has never experienced this before, knows that she would also not want a pregnancy at this moment. Marianne brings in more progressive ideas into La Comtesse’s household throughout the movie.

It’s almost like a whole new world.

Along with the solidarity of the three girls, we also see witches! These witches sang around a bonfire and drank to their heart’s content. They also are the ones who provide Sophie with an abortion, after the more holistic approach fails.

The scene with the witches is one of the most striking since it’s one of the few scenes with music. The movie was like real life in that it didn’t have a soundtrack. There was music when music was playing and singing when the witches were singing. That made me appreciate the lack of soundtrack more. The song that played in the trailer appeared only twice in the movie. Once on the harpsichord by Marianne for a few moments and then at the end, where Marianne sees Héloïse for the last time, crying at the sound of the same song Marianne played for her.

The themes of this movie made it worthwhile. It was beautiful to see an LGBT love story told in such a heartbreaking but obvious way. I love to watch movies where women support each other, so this was another added to my list. The two leads had a lot of chemistry but it was demure and only showed through small facial expressions. There’s a moment in the film where they both describe each other’s expressions and habits when they are angry, upset, or confused. It showed how they loved one another in such a simplistic way.

The acting in this movie reminded me a bit of Yorgos Lanthimos characters. His movies, such as The Lobster and Dogtooth, always have a very monotone yet effective delivery. Although Portrait of a Lady on Fire had more emotion, it still had that very blasé factor to it. It reminded me of everyday life and how not every day will be exciting. It was interesting to see this kind of feeling in a movie. I almost ended up not liking it because I’m so used to the extravagancies of other movies.

This film brought a new feeling to cinema for me. I yearned for more emotion in the movie but after dwelling on the subject for a while, I felt all the emotions. I knew how it felt to love someone and keep it hidden while paying attention to them so closely that I know them without saying a word. It was so beautiful in that way.

I was also very excited to see ungroomed eyebrows and armpit hair! It’s so tiring seeing period films with women who have shaven armpits and waxed eyebrows. The makeup crew gave Marianne and Héloïse a makeup-less look that was so accurate to the times.

My Verdict?

Portrait of a Lady on Fire was something I didn’t expect. It challenged what I viewed as a good movie and opened my eyes to its differences. It had amazing feminist themes that are still relative today as well as a focus on LGBT love. And it’s a period drama. What more can you ask for?

I give Portrait of a Lady on Fire a 10/10.

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