Published Feb 11, 2020Life's sweetest moments are impermanent, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) is a heartbreaking account of a queer love affair with a fast-approaching time limit. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a portrait artist in 18th century France, and she's hired to travel to the coastal region of Brittany to paint Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a recluse who recently left her convent and is being forced into a marriage with a stranger in Milan.
Despite the insistence of Heloise's noblewoman mother (Valeria Golino), the strong-willed bride-to-be won't allow her portrait to be painted, so Marianne poses as a walking companion and does her art in secret. There's fairly minimal dialogue and absolutely no score (other than the few times when music plays within a scene), meaning that the gorgeous soundscape comes from the crackling fire and pounding waves.
There's an untamed violence to Brittany's rugged coastline — one that reflects Héloïse's anger over being married against her will, as well as the recent tragic loss of her sister (whose died by a suspected suicide). There are long, lingering looks as Marianne studies Héloïse's face, and patiently paced character development as the two women slowly open up to one another.
The intensity escalates after Héloïse learns what Marianne is up to, and their budding friendship blossoms into a secret romance. Héloïse will soon be whisked away to Milan, so the women savour every moment they can with an intensity that's as joyful as it is heartbreaking.
Céline Sciamma's direction is riveting, as she expertly choreographs luxuriously long scenes with minimal cuts. The subtly of the romance is contrasted by some poetic, in-your-face metaphors — like when Marianne paints a self-portrait using a mirror placed over Héloïse's crotch, or when a discarded portrait is set on fire and quite literally burns at the heart. They're wonderful in their blunt simplicity.
The conclusion is inevitable, but no less affecting for its predictability. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a testament to the power of love — and a reminder of the cruelty of social conventions that tear queer partners apart.