A Film For March: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

At the end of the 18th century a countess (Valeria Golino) asks a young artist to paint a portrait of her daughter Héloïse, (Adèle Haenel), which is to be shown to a wealthy, prospective husband living in Milan.

When Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives at the remote island near Brittany she’s told that she needs to paint in secret, pretending that she’s come as a companion to Héloïse; to watch and study her closely as they spend their days together, and then paint at night. Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, this is a simple story about women’s friendship and the unfolding romance between the two main characters, told with pared back elegance.

When I think about this film the first thing I think of is the sound of it. There’s no background music, all the sounds are made by the characters. The sea and the waves breaking, the scratching of charcoal, a canvas being prepared, wooden shoes on floor boards and the hollow clunk of a door being shut. Héloïse has been in a convent and has never heard an orchestra play. The only music we hear, she hears too; tentatively produced by Marianne on a harpsichord and then joyfully by a chorus of women singing and clapping traditional Breton folk songs; until at the end, back in Paris, we hear and see a full orchestra together.

The colour palette and costumes are similarly constrained and natural. Subdued, sludgy, candlelit interiors contrast with the fresh vibrancy and clashing colours of their dresses and the sea.

All this constraint means that we really focus on the characters and the slow build up of their relationships. Not just Marianne and Héloïse, but the friendship they create with the kitchen maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) and her story as well.

I was delighted by this film, it positively basks in its femaleness. Its pivotal point, the painting, runs throughout in a practical way – arranging furniture and fabric and preparing paint but it also questions observation. While Marianne is painting and watching Héloïse so Héloïse is watching Marianne, the painter and subject observe each other while we observe them.

They look at a painting of Orpheus and Eurydice and discuss the gaze of Orpheus that sends his wife to the underworld. They all give opinions but it’s Héloïse, about to be married, who wonders if Eurydice wasn’t the one to say “turn around”, thus choosing her own fate? By turning the “historical romance” on its head with the female gaze, I think we’re being asked to question the way we see and accept traditional storylines.

8 thoughts on “A Film For March: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

  1. Love, love, love this film! I saw a preview at the London Film Festival in the autumn of 2019, back in a time when coronavirus was unheard of. As you say, the use of sound really accentuates some of the imagery. (The scene of the women singing and clapping together is so striking – utterly unforgettable.) Sciamma’s other films are well worth checking out too, partly for the broader context and partly to track the director’s development. You can really see a sense of progression in her work over time.

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  2. The beach singing is probably my favourite scene (although I love the three of them pottering in the kitchen), it’s so delightfully surprising! There’s a very good interview with Sciamma on BFI player, have you seen it? I can’t wait for cinema’s to re open. . .

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  3. This is one of my favourite films, resplendent and reflective, and I love your review of it! It “basks in its femaleness” as you so rightly put it, and I can already see it becoming a classic to be watched, studied and admired in the years to come.

    Liked by 1 person

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