At the end of the 18th century, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is teaching portraiture to a group of young women when one of them asks her about a painting they discovered at the back of the class—the titular ‘portrait of a lady on fire.’ We then jump to a flashback, which takes precedence for the majority of the film, as Marianne recalls one of the most defining moments of her life.
While travelling to the isolated island of Brittany in France, Marianne’s canvasses fall overboard and, without hesitation, she dives into the turbulent sea to rescue them—showing us that she is a woman of agency. Marianne has been commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel); a young woman who is to be married off to her late sister’s ex-fiancé. However, Héloïse has refused to sit for portraits as she doesn’t wish to marry the Milanese nobleman. Because of this, Marianne is told that she will act as Héloïse’s walking companion during the day and will paint her in secret at night.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire has such beautiful direction and cinematography that the film almost feels like a painting itself. It’s made up of breathtaking shots, and has a dreamlike tenderness about it with gentle characters, soft voices, and a calming ambiance—even though we know a bittersweet ending is waiting for us. Director Céline Sciamma and Haenel are lesbians themselves, which allows the film to be coated in an authentic and compassionate female gaze.
We don’t meet Héloïse until twenty-minutes into the film. With her back towards us and running recklessly towards the cliff side, we fear that she will meet the same fate as her sister—but then she finally turns around and reveals her effortless beauty. Sciamma uses intimate close-ups throughout the film to demonstrate Marianne’s tender voyeurism towards Héloïse—after all, she must commit Héloïse’s features to memory in order to capture her likeness for the painting. During the first half of the film, Marianne quietly observes her subject, but she soon realizes that her subject is watching her back.
When Héloise finds out the truth and sees the first painting for the first time, she asks: “Is that how you see me? No life, no presence?” Marianne destroys the painting after realizing she failed to capture Héloïse’s true aura. It’s during the second half of the film, when Héloïse’s mother leaves for five days that the two women are finally able to act on their impulses, as Sciamma shows us what happens when women are given the freedom to live out their desires.
With male characters not around, Portrait loses itself to the female experience. Marianne and Héloise’s passion grows as they spend more time together and learn the most intimate details about one another—such as how Marianne always touches her forehead when she doesn’t know what to say. “Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?” Héloise wonders. Portrait is an intimate portrayal of lesbian romance, though it’s one that heavily relies on furtive glances and soft touches. Despite this, the subsequent yearning physicality of their relationship manages to provide raw vulnerability—something that works for the film’s time period.
Marianne and Héloise also treat servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) as their equal as they all cook together, play cards, and exchange stories. They also aid Sophie with her abortion, as Sciamma makes sure to explore more of the female experience. While both lesbianism and abortion were illegal in 18th century France, these women don’t judge each other as they live freely during their short-lived period of time together. Even though the presence of a male dominated society looms over them, Portrait shows us what happens when women are left to just be.
The theme of freedom runs strongly throughout Portrait as Héloise questions if freedom is loneliness, but it soon becomes apparent that people can set you free in ways you didn’t imagine. Sciamma is also sure to show love without possession as it ditches the male view on lesbian love. In an interview with Jezebel, Merlant said: “Women fill the frame and take their freedom in a world where there is restrictions everywhere. They find their way to love. They don’t talk about men because it’s a vision of a woman writing this movie.”
The final moments of Portrait are its most powerful. Marianne knows that their love is impossible, but Héloise has not been able to recover from the heartbreak that still follows her around years later. The short time they had together were the best moments of their lives and the impact is enough to last a lifetime. While both actresses give phenomenal performances, it’s Haenel’s final moments of pure heartache that will stay with you long after the film is over.