Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the most powerful portrayals of forbidden love you will ever see. Winner of Best Screenplay at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, the film begins with the titular portrait of a lady on fire. Marianne, played by Noémie Merlant, is visibly moved when her art students bring out the portrait unbeknownst to her. There’s significant meaning behind this vivid painting, and director Céline Sciamma expertly fills in the details, one stroke at a time
Portrait of a Lady on Fire chronicles Marianne, an 18th-century French painter hired to paint the portrait of Héloïse, played by Adèle Haenel. Marianne travels to a remote island in Brittany at the orders of Héloïse’s mom, The Countess, played by Valeria Golino, to paint the portrait. Héloïse, who was abruptly removed from the convent, will soon be forced into a marriage with a nobleman from Milan. The Countess explains to Marianne how Héloïse refuses to sit for her portrait so she must paint in secret and go on daily walks with Héloïse in order to memorize her features. The finished portrait will be a gift to Héloïse’s future husband that she will marry soon enough.
At first, Marianne and Héloïse struggle to bond as they both err on the side of caution. Héloïse feels trapped in a marriage she wants nothing to do with and Marianne wants to act on her desires but hesitates in her initial encounters. It’s a game of chicken as Marianne and Héloïse hesitate to make the first move. However, as the two women spend more time together, their chemistry is magnetic and the sexual tension is palpable. The “will they, won’t they” narrative builds whenever Marianne and Héloïse look into each other’s eyes. There’s a time constraint that lingers over the love story, but Sciamma meticulously crafts a slow burn that is in no rush to end.
For a film that uses little music, the silence speaks volumes. It’s the quiet moments that Marianne and Héloïse spend together on the beach and in bed that the audience will cherish. On this island, these women express themselves in any way they please. Forbidden love can’t last, but the freedom to love is more important because it’s their choice. They are not bogged down by the restraints of society and the orders of powerful men. Marianne and Héloïse challenge each other intellectually just as much as they embrace romantically. Whether debating the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice with Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), a maid, or pondering their impending futures, Marianne and Héloïse create a world to themselves even if it’s only for a few days.
Thanks to stunning imagery and a brilliant script, Portrait of a Lady on Fire will move you in ways you didn’t think were possible. The final scene will leave you motionless and short of breath. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire is as beautiful as it gets.
Note: My goal is to see more foreign films in 2020. I absolutely loved Parasite, which was my favorite film in 2019. As Bong Joon-ho said, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Neon produced Parasite as well as Portrait of a Lady on Fire so it’s clear the studio has good taste. I encourage everyone reading this to at least go into 2020 with an open mind when it comes to movies. See anything and everything, but at the end of the day, just see something.