Portrait of a Lady on Fire review: A gorgeous study of two women in love, unbothered by the restrictions of men

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant carry the film with ease, projecting pages of unwritten script in the pauses between words

Portrait of a Lady on Fire trailer

Dir: Céline Sciamma. Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino. 15 cert, 119 mins

In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, director Céline Sciamma resists showing us the face of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) for as long as possible. She’s the daughter of a countess (Valeria Golina) in 18th century Brittany, sent home from the convent with an eye to securing a prosperous match. She will sit for a portrait, which will then be shipped off to her suitor in Milan as proof of her beauty. We first meet Héloïse through the eyes of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), the second artist invited to capture her likeness, after she refused to sit for the first. The request, then, is that Marianne poses as a walking companion, studying Héloïse in secret.

As they set off on their first promenade, Marianne is greeted only by the back of her subject’s head. Héloïse, the hood of her cloak up, storms onwards. The camera follows with interest, matching Marianne’s view (or lack of view). As Héloïse’s pace quickens, the hood flies back to reveal blonde curls – she’s running now, right towards the cliffs that line the property’s edge. And then, she stops and turns around. We finally see her, exposed and vulnerable. The two of them are perfect opposites: Héloïse’s gaze is piercing, the corners of her mouth turned down in a permanent scowl; Marianne’s eyes, meanwhile, are dark, wide, hungry.

With one look, we can already tell these women will fall for each other – even if they don’t know it themselves. There’s minimal dialogue, which is bold considering the cast consists only of a handful of players. But Haenel and Merlant carry the film with ease and elan, projecting pages of unwritten script in the pauses between words.

Sciamma’s gorgeous romantic film concerns itself almost entirely with the unseen powers of the gaze. Through quiet, contemplative scenes – with the camera often left to rest on a close-up – we’re invited to study these women, just as they’re studying each other. Their desire is read through the subtlest of hints: the way hands might briefly brush up against each other or a faint smile will crack across Héloïse’s stony face. Sciamma’s work so far has always been notable for its striking sense of modernity (2014’s Girlhood featured an unforgettable sequence of its main character dancing to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”), but here she proves she can draw equally from the world of classical romanticism, with all its tragic longing and suppressed passions.

But Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t only about the look between two women as lovers, but between two women in the position of artist and subject. As Héloïse points out, when Marianne is painting her, where else is she meant to look but back at her? It’s a concept conveniently missing from heterosexual representations of artist and muse, which are largely marked by an imbalance of power. “Equality is a pleasant feeling,” Marianne notes. Marianne gets her period and the household’s servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) goes through an abortion, both dealt with in the unfussed manner of women free to live unbothered by the outside interests and restrictions of men. In fact, men are only fleetingly glimpsed, there as a reminder that this must all soon end for Héloïse, destined is she for marital imprisonment.

But they gaze at each other still, taking in every inch of skin and every gesture. Real love may be fleeting, but as Portrait of a Lady on Fire explains, art and memory are immortal.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in