Review of Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Developmentally Edited by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copy Edited and Posted by Sophie Schmidt

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). 122 minutes. Directed by Céline Sciamma. Starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel.

Still from Portrait of a Lady on Fire.


How can you tell if someone has seen Portrait of a Lady on Fire? If the number 28 makes them cry.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a 2019 period French film directed by Céline Sciamma. Set in the eighteenth century, it tells the story of Marianne, a portrait painter, and Héloïse, her reluctant subject. Marianne is instructed by Héloïse’s mother to paint her daughter in secret, as Héloïse refuses to pose for a portrait. Marianne agrees, and gets to know Héloïse as a friend, studying and painting her unbeknownst to her. When the portrait is finished, Marianne shows it to Héloïse, which is when she realizes she did not capture her subject correctly. While it looks like her, it holds none of Héloïse’s essence or personality. Héloïse agrees to sit for a second portrait. Throughout the process of creating the second portrait, Marianne and Héloïse fall in love, all while knowing their romance can only last until the portrait is completed. 

The audience gets to study Héloïse alongside Marianne as she paints her portrait. The camera is often positioned so we see Héloïse as Marianne would. We get to watch as Marianne breaks away at Héloïse’s stormy exterior and gets to her fierce, loving core. In the process, Marianne also lets her own walls crumble, and we get to see more than the studious painter. As the story unfolds, we see two vulnerable women, no longer afraid to be themselves, so long as they are in the safe bubble of each other’s presence.

One thing I loved about the film was the way music was used. Héloïse tells Marianne that she does not often get the opportunity to hear music as she does not have many opportunities to go to the orchestra. Music is therefore used sparingly throughout the film, and only in moments when the main characters would hear it. For example, Marianne plays Héloïse a song on the beat-up piano in the art studio. She explains what the song means and how the composer wants the audience to hear it. This song later returns at an emotional moment in the film. Marianne, and therefore the camera, stays fixated on Héloïse as she listens to this song, hearing what Marianne described for the first time. The camera pushes in on Héloïse as her emotions build, remembering the first time she heard that song. Music is used to connect these two women and reflect how they would have experienced it during this time period.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire centers entirely on the relationships between women. There are no men in the film. There is, of course the romantic relationship between the two main characters, but there is also the strained mother-daughter relationship between Héloïse and her mother. Héloïse’s mother is expecting her to marry, a fate her sister took her own life to escape. Héloïse rebels in a different way, refusing to sit for a portrait and closing herself off from her mother. They never fight with words, only with actions. There is also the friendship between Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie, the maid. When Sophie finds out that she is pregnant, she confides in Marianne, stating that she does not wish to be. Marianne supports Sophie through this troubling ordeal. The film works to show realized familial, romantic, and friend relationships between the central women in the story.

The performances from Noémie Merlant, who plays Marianne, and Adèle Haenel, who plays Héloïse, are stunning. These actors have an emotional connection that carries the viewers through the film. They are able to communicate their feelings and turmoil just by the looks they give. For example, when Marianne is studying Héloïse in order to paint her, we are able to see on Marianne’s face the concentration on her art and the budding feelings she has. 

The costumes and setting of this film help to bring the audience back to the eighteenth century. They are both fairly simple. Marianne and Héloïse both wear one costume for the majority of the film — layered full-length dresses like one would expect to see in a period piece. I’m certainly no expert in historical fashion, but to me, the costuming fit right into the time period and helped set the scene for this story. The setting for this film was simple, and mainly in one location. The house Héloïse resides in is a large, mostly empty house on the beach. The set dressing helped add to the atmosphere of the film and took the audience back in time. 

If you are looking for something to continue celebrating Pride Month all year, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautiful love story that will make you wish for love that lasts.

You can rent the movie on Amazon Prime. Learn more about Kara on her profile.