Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019/2020)



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Céline Sciamma wrote and directed Portrait of a Lady on Fire; a French, period piece, set on an isolated island in Brittany in the late 1700s. It is very French but not a cartoonish film. Adèle Haenel plays Héloïse, the daughter of a wealthy mother who will be sent to become the bride of a man she hasn’t met in Milan. Noémie Merlant plays Marianne, the artist hired by the mother to complete a portrait of Héloïse. Once the portrait is finished, Héloïse will be sent away to Milan.


The love story of Héloïse and Marianne is one of the best I have seen. The chemistry between these two actresses is phenomenal. Marianne must take notes in secret about Héloïse since she, Héloïse, won’t sit for a painting. We, the audience, get intimate shots of Héloïse as Marianne describes what physical attributes an artist must pay attention to. A huge portion of the movie is studying how gorgeous Héloïse’s ears are, or how perfect her hands are. We already know these are two stunning people, but the movie keeps going back to it. Héloïse is also examining Marianne through this time.


The tension created by the desire between these two women is palpable. It is frustrating when they don’t embrace each other in multiple scenes. Eventually, they reveal their feelings and it is so satisfying! They only have a few days before Héloïse gets sent away, but they make the most of it. The movie is so tender and sensual. These are not lesbian sex scenes shot for the male gaze; these are two people madly in love with each other.


During the short relationship, Héloïse and Marianne must help Sophie, played by Luana Bajrami, with a problem. All three women are constrained by a male-dominated world. They are all relying on other women’s support to work within a world where they lack control. The movie does not have a score to distract. This lack of added sound makes it feel a little more isolating as every footstep and brushstroke, can be heard clearly.


Céline Sciamma wrote and directed a phenomenal film. It won Best Screenplay at Cannes and likely would have been best picture had Parasite not existed. This is a fantastic film with a compelling cast of women. There are no men of any consequence in this movie. The closing scene is a powerful end to a powerful story. This movie is more evidence that ‘Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films’

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©2019 by Sean Whitehurst