It’s hard to put into words the impact that Portrait of a Lady on Fire has had and continues to have on me. The story of Marianne and Heloise is one of such intensity and passion that it remained burned into my brain for weeks after the first time I saw it. This is without a doubt one of those movies that you “must see” before you die.
What Portrait of a Lady on Fire Means to Us
There’s something hypnotic about watching a fire flicker in the dark. Something about the way the flames dance around that pulls you in and keeps you captive even though you know it’s dangerous. But as fleeting as it is, you let yourself be bound by its seductive flickers. The dance pulls you in but the heat keeps you enthralled. That’s why it’s sometimes easier to let the flames extinguish themselves than snuff them out. Because even though it was just a bonfire and you know the heat was only temporary, for a brief moment you gave yourself over to something beautiful. You know from the beginning of this film, that the love affair between these two women will only be temporary. Their love, like the fire from the title, has an expiration date. So, the film makes every second as romantic as it is heartbreaking. Their love may be like a fire but the film itself is like a painting. It’s breathtakingly gorgeous to look at with some frames looking like they belong in the Louvre. While not a sub-genre per se, studios need to retire the lesbian period piece costume drama because anything released after this will feel redundant.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire was one of my most highly anticipated movie releases in the last few years. Unfortunately living in the UK meant I had to wait longer than pretty much the rest of the world until I could watch it. But that just made me look forward to it all the more. Everything I heard about it sounded right up my street.
When I finally did get the chance to see it, it did not disappoint. Regardless of what I had heard about the film, nothing really prepared me for the range of emotions I experienced for the entirety of the runtime. It felt like a work of art, with its elegant performances and impassioned storytelling. Still, in a movie full of such beauty, it was the moments of silence and calm reflection that felt the most impactful. And the finale, with Vivaldi playing and emotion spilling from Adèle Haenels face, was executed to perfection. It is such a simple yet powerful scene.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a 2019 film set at the end of the 18th century that follows two women, a painter (Noémie Merlant) and a noblewoman (Adèle Haenel), as they engage in a brief and highly dangerous lesbian affair while Marianne, the painter, seeks to paint a portrait of the soon-to-be-married Heloise. Isolated on a lonely estate in Brittany, the pair create a relationship that is all the more heart wrenching because both sides know it will be short, and because it is completely forbidden and dangerous to engage in.
While same-sex relationships have never been completely free of danger, the consequences of being caught in a lesbian relationship at this time can’t be understated. At a minimum, the reputations of both women would’ve been permanently ruined, and likely Marianne would’ve been sent to prison and/or executed for “corrupting” Heloise. The latter, being a noblewoman, likely could’ve bought her way out of trouble, though the stain on her reputation would’ve remained. Knowing all this, seeing Marianne and Heloise grow in their love together is near torturous, because as pure and wholesome as their love is, you know it can’t last, there can’t be a happy ending no matter what they want.
One of the things that makes Portrait of a Lady on Fire such a memorable film is the striking cinematography, particularly once Marianne and Heloise are on the island together. This film is a prime example of the female gaze in film. For those who might not be familiar with the term, the female gaze refers to a term in feminist theory that deals with, among other things, how women are perceived and portrayed within a film. That is to say, this is a film that specifically does not objectify women. Even when Heloise is sitting for the painting, you never feel that she’s an object of desire as might happen in other films.
There’s also the gorgeous shots of the ocean that permeate the film. Marianne and Heloise take multiple walks along the beach and each shot feels like a painting brought to life. The way these two women are framed against the backdrop of the roiling ocean, it’s just beautiful beyond words.
One of the things that sticks out to me the most about Portrait of a Lady on Fire is how music is employed with an almost devastating effect at certain points of the story. This is made all the more poignant by the fact that there’s very little music in the film. One piece that is heard several time is the “Summer” movement from Vivaldi’s famous “Four Seasons” concerto. Heloise’s reaction to that music is a key moment in the finale, and it’s filled with so many emotional layers that it sticks with you, despite being a relatively simple sequence. This relative lack of music also shows that a film doesn’t necessarily need a huge musical score to effectively get across its message.
For me the biggest legacy of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is that it set a new standard for portraying a same-sex relationship in a film. I’ve seen a number of films that depict these types of relationships, but this one feels different. It showed there are still many ways to explore relationships, same-sex or otherwise, without it feeling forced or shoehorned in. It’s set the bar so high for a story of this type that it will be many years before anything can surpass it.
To conclude, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an iconic love story that became a classic the moment it first appeared. There are precious few movies this beautiful out there in the world and I’m so glad this one exists.
Are you a fan of Portrait of a Lady on Fire? Do you have a fun fact, piece of trivia, or analysis about the 2019 film? Share it in the comments!