My first reaction to the title of this movie was to wonder if it was something in the spirit of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, maybe a horror parody of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady? But no, instead this exquisite French film is a sumptuous and sensual drama about an impossible love between two women in 18th-century Brittany.
The story plays out as a memory belonging to Marianne (Noémie Merlant), an artist who arrives on a remote windswept island to paint a portrait of a young noblewoman. The portrait is commissioned by her mother, who officially hires Marianne as a walking companion to her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The young woman has just returned from a convent, and her hand has been promised in marriage to a wealthy Italian noble she’s never met, as a replacement for her sister who committed suicide. A portrait of Héloïse is to be sent to her prospective husband, but it has to be completed in secret since Héloïse, who abhors her impending marriage, would never consent to sitting for such a gift. A previous artist was fired, leaving behind an abandoned portrait with the head disturbingly missing.
Marianne duly follows Héloïse on her walks along the cliffs and the beach, trying to commit her features to the memory with quick furtive glances that don’t go unnoticed by the other woman. Eventually Héloïse lowers her guard and a friendship develops between the two, which then gives way to a deeper passion. The companion ruse doesn’t last for long – Marianne confesses the whole thing after her first attempt at a portrait, a blandly pleasing image that captures none of Héloïse’s spirit and which Marianne destroys in a fit of anger. Héloïse consents to posing for a second version, and her mother’s departure gives the two women a space to explore their burgeoning attraction before the trap of a loveless marriage slams shut.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire has an arresting stillness about it, and is exceptionally beautiful to look at, with every frame begging to be hung on a wall. The almost complete lack of score makes the moments when the music does kick in incredibly powerful – most memorably in the film’s last sequence set in an opera house where the romance is re-lived and remembered to the sounds of Vivaldi; one of the best uses of music I’ve seen in recent times. There’s also the film’s centrepiece, a strange, witchy all-female gathering at night accompanied by singing and handclaps. This latter sequence is also the birthplace of the movie’s title, inspired by an image that’s both evocative and nightmarish. It’s not the only touch of the mystical in the film; there are references to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and eerie ghostly visions of the inevitable future that appear to Marianne.
Merlant and Haenel have a wonderful chemistry, and the passion between Marianne and Héloïse is captured in a way that’s both restrained and erotic. Despite the brevity of their romance and the sadness of parting, there’s something uplifting about the way the memory of their affair endures, and the way the women revel in the few moments of freedom they can get. The film also pays close attention to the process of painting, with many lovely close-up shots of the initial sketching, delicate brushstrokes and Marianne’s concentrated face as she checks the proportions and scrutinises her work.
P.S. The actress who played Héloïse’s regal mother looked very familiar to me; I realised later that it was Valeria Golino, who was Tom Cruise’s girlfriend in Rain Man and also had a part in Hot Shots! How the time flies.