Freedom and friendship in ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

In Celine Sciamma’s new film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, an 18th century French painter finds herself with a difficult task. Secrets and deceit change the relationship dynamic between two girls. (SYJ: rating 4 / 5)


Review by FF2 Media Intern Sophia Y. Jin


Set in 18th century Brittany, «Marianne» (Noemie Merlant) teaches the art of painting to a class of young women. Noticing an old painting of hers in the back of the classroom, she is reminded of a house on an isolated island. She remembers how she travelled on rocky waters and steep hills, carrying the heavy load of her art equipment. Upon arriving, housemaid «Sophie» (Luana Bajrami) takes Marianne up to a reception room where she will sleep. She finds out here that it hasn’t been used to entertain guests in at least three years. An odd sense about the family is present. The house seems strangely empty, and filled with secrets.


The next morning, she meets with her employer the lady of the house, «La Comtesse» (Valeria Golino), who explains the difficulty of Marianne’s post. The Comtesse’s first daughter recently died a tragic death, meaning her sister «Heloise» (Adele Haenel) would have to take her place in marrying a Milanese gentleman.


However, Heloise, removed against her will from a convent, refuses to accept this fate. The Comtesse needs Heloise to be painted so her suitor can see what she looks like, but Heloise refused to pose for a previous painter. Her mother explains that Marianne will pretend to be only a walking companion, to keep Heloise company when she goes out to the cliff and the beach, and to keep a watch on her. Her actual role is to paint Heloise’s portrait without her noticing. This portrait would then be sent to her suitor, essentially, to be approved. 


Understanding her position, Marianne accompanies Heloise on her walks, all the while studying her face, hair, ears, and hands, in the most subtle ways possible. The rest of the time, Marianne uses Sophie to pose in a dress to get the remainder of the portrait done. When the painting is finished, Marianne asks for her to show the portrait to Heloise herself and explain herself before she shows the Comtesse. Heloise is not happy with the deceit, but her reaction towards the actual painting is unexpected. She is disappointed by the inaccurate portrayal of her spirit in the portrait’s facial expression. In turn, the Comtesse fires her, but Heloise decides she will pose for Marianne, so the Comtesse lets Marianne stay on for five more days. In the meantime, the Comtesse is away. However, throughout Marianne’s stay, she has gotten to know Heloise, and feels guilty for helping take Heloise’s freedom away.


During this time, since Marianne and Heloise no longer have any secrets between the two, both knowing who the other is in reality, their relationship blossoms. Each of the two protagonists have a desire for the other, and as the two spend more time with each other, they become inseparable. Celine Sciamma’s new film Portrait of a Lady on Fire shows the development of a relationship between a painter, who has no restriction to do with marriage, and a young lady whose family status and financial wellbeing depend on marriage. The painter is Heloise’s escape from the fate she didn’t want. The film’s attention to detail, like that of a painter, makes every subtle movement significant. Throughout the movie, there is minimal music, so that when music does feature, it is more obvious and powerful. The picture is beautiful, both visually and poetically.


Does The Portrait of a Lady on Fire pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

Yes! It talks about the painting.

©Sophia Y Jin (12/11/19) FF2 Media

Coach’s Thoughts by FF2 Contributing Editor Amelie Lasker


My favorite moments in Portrait of a Lady on Fire come when Marianne and Heloise look at each other, sometimes very close, but often as if across impossible gulfs. When Heloise sits for Marianne to paint her portrait, Marianne points out all the little mannerisms that give away how she is feeling. Then Heloise turns Marianne’s own game back on her, and describes how each of Marianne’s movements reveals her feelings even more clearly. They really see each other.


This gulf can be accounted for in the vast contrast between their two lives. Marianne is free to love and live as she wishes; Heloise is condemned to a future of which she knows nothing. The relationship between them becomes a temporary freedom for Heloise, but Heloise begins to feel even Marianne is trying to possess her, to place her in a different kind of bind.


When Marianne, Heloise, and Sophie read the story of Orpheus and Eurydice together, Sophie is angry, wondering why Orpheus turned around and fails the test, banishing Eurydice back to the underworld forever. Marianne suggests that maybe he did it on purpose, knowing that he would be giving up his love: “He made the poet’s choice, rather than the lover’s,” she says. I am reminded of the painting in the first scene with Marianne and her art class, the painting that triggers the flashback to this whole story: it’s a memento preserved, an artist’s way of dealing with the loss of someone once close to her. The question is, then, whether Marianne is possessing Heloise by preserving her memory in this way, as Heloise feared, or whether Marianne is appreciating Heloise, giving her a special kind of freedom by carrying her on only through art.

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Sophia is currently a student of classical music. She joined FF2 Media in 2018, and loves working with everyone on the team because not only does it promote women's roles in films, it also opens her up to more works done by women. Sophia is so glad that there is a space that is full of women alike in their passion to bring more attention to females who are just as capable or even more capable than men in the industry.
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