Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter. She gets hired to paint the portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). It’s supposed to be her wedding portrait and Héloïse has so far refused to be painted by all of the (male) painters who came before. So Marianne is under strict orders to not tell Héloïse of her job, but just spend time with her and then paint her from memory. When Marianne arrives, she finds Héloïse a fasinating portrait subject, but even more than that, a fascinating woman.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautiful, unusual film telling an epic love story in stunning images. It did take me two attempts to get into it, but once I did, I absolutely loved it.
When I saw Portrait of a Lady on Fire for the first time, it hit me on the wrong day. I was tired and not in the shape to watch a slow film, and so I found myself a bit at a loss and my first reaction about it was “this is it?” But since I loved Sciamma’s films so far and since so many other people loved the film, I figured that I should give it another try on another day. And what a good decision that was – that time round, I completely fell into the film.
It’s a beautiful love story that is both very happy and very unhappy – there is true and lasting love, but there is also no way they can be together. But just because they aren’t growing old together, doesn’t make their relationship any less meaningful.
In a way, any film that depicts true love between two women is utterly political, but Portrait takes it one step further, including the limited roles women could play in society, or abortion as a topic as well as the power imbalance between Marianne, Héloïse and the maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami).
It does all of that with magnetic performance by both Merlant and Haenel, and absolutely stunning cinematography. Also, I really need to find out who painted the very first painting we see of Héloïse walking with her dress on fire because, wow, I want to plaster my house with it.
I may have been a little late to the party, but I can honestly say now that I think Portrait is a masterpiece of a film and I hope to watch it many more times.