Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Review) – An exquisite journey into memory, desire, love and sisterhood

‘Portrait de la jeune fille en feu’

Writer and director Céline Sciamma is renowned for her beautiful and nuanced coming of age films. With a back catalogue filled with stunning reflections on the transition to adulthood, from Water Lilies to Tomboy. However, with her latest film ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’, Sciamma breaks with her own convention. While equally demonstrating that the urgency of love and belonging is not just a preserve of teenage life. In turn, bringing us a film that not only shines with the power and intensity of hidden love. But also offers a classical reflection of the barriers imposed on women in art during the 18th Century. Ultimately delivering a film that radiates style, love and art in equal measure. While equally lacing its narrative with the directorial flare of both Alfred Hitchcock and Jane Campion.

Set in the late 18th century, before the French Revolution. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a travelling portrait artist, her passion for painting kicking against a male dominated artistic world. On arriving at a secluded chateau in Brittany, Marianne finds her latest assignment filled with mystery and hidden family intrigue. Her job being the completion of a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the young lady of the house. The portrait destined to be dispatched to Héloïse’s future husband, a Milanese nobleman. A man who Héloïse is yet to meet, her prospective portrait acting as a one sided introduction before the arranged marriage.

However, this arranged union is shrouded in sadness and tragedy. As the family mourn the suicide of Héloïse’s older sister. Her suicide being an escape from the very marriage her younger sister must now endure. And with this is mind Héloïse uses her only real power (stubbornness) to prevent the artists hired by her mother (Valeria Golino) from finishing their work.

Therefore, Marianne finds herself instructed to present as a companion to Héloïse, and not an artist. Discreetly using her powers of observation to complete the portrait in the shadow of night. However, as a friendship buzzing with repressed desire begins to form between Marianne and Héloïse. The bonds between both women become stronger, each coming to understand the oppression of the other. Leading both women into a secret and urgent relationship of both love and freedom. One where both women push at the barriers of 18th Century France. While the seclusion of the chateau protects them for the reality of the world, for a brief and divine moment in time.

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant star in Portrait of a Lady on Fire ©️Curzon Artificial Eye

Told from the perspective of Marianne, as she searches her memory on being asked about one of her paintings. ‘Portrait of a Lady of Fire’ carries an almost dream like aesthetic. One where the viewer is never quite sure of where personal memory and reality converge in the love affair of two women. And when combined with the divine cinematography of Claire Mathon. Portrait not only echoes the vibrant colour and soft focus of human memory. But also the darker shadows of reflective doubt and pain.

Forbidden love is mainstay of LGBTQ cinema, with the urgent need to embrace another, even if briefly a theme pervading the genre. However, while this is indeed a founding pillar of Sciamma’s film. It is a theme that equally finds itself layered with a myriad of additional social discussion. Ranging from the hidden life of the female artist in 18th Century Europe. Through to the importance of sisterhood and support. A theme beautifully brought to life through the story of Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) the house Kitchen maid.

But, Sciamma’s film equally captures the same smouldering intensity and depth seen in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. As hidden love finds joy and promise in the beauty and seclusion of coastal Brittany. And just as Call Me By Your Name transcended the normal cliches of the secret love story. Portrait of a Lady of Fire equally sets itself apart from any other film within the genre, by layering its love story with mystery, sex, art and a desire for freedom. Its final scene paying homage to Elio’s fire side contemplation and hurt in Guadagnino’s film. While equally reflecting this pain from a different angle, as a memory that may or may not give the audience the full picture.

While Sciamma’s screenplay echoes the tragic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice; a reading of which sits centrally within the film. A myth that saw Orpheus nearly succeed in rescuing his true love from the underworld. But inadvetantly trapped her there forever, due to turning around and looking at her beauty one last time. The underworld here, being Héloïse’s lack of any control over her eventual destiny. Despite the strength of Marianne’s love. While Marianne embraces her role in ensuring Héloïse experiences a brief but powerful love before her subjedcation. Her portrait acting as the final image of her freedom and choice.

With this in mind you would think Portrait of a Lady on Fire would permeate a sense of sadness. However, there is nothing sombre in the joy and love both women bring to each others lives. And once again as with Call me By Your Name. The importance of love, even if brief finds a beauty and harmony rarely seen in film.

Director: Céline Sciamma

Cast: Noémie MerlantAdèle HaenelLuàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino


Portrait of a Lady of Fire is released nationwide on February 28th 2020

Portrait of Lady of Fire can also be found in LGBTQ Films – The Essential Collection