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Film Review: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” Offers a Searing Period Drama of Female Agency

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 26th, 2020

Film poster: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (“Portrait de la jeune fille en feu”) (Céline Sciamma, 2019) out of 4 stars.

Imagine the joys of this world in the absence of patriarchy and its attendant oppression. While there are certainly other forms of control, and while men are not alone in their desire to master those around them, male dominance is the most ubiquitous kind of authority – existing across lines of ethnicity and gender – and the most ruthless. Individual women can be equally cruel and callous, for sure, and not all men are monsters, but show me a society where women are free to choose their own path in life and I’ll show you a more equitable and just one than its opposite. Liberate us from the chains of gender discrimination and much good will follow.

In French director Céline Sciamma’s emotionally evocative and devastating Portrait of a Lady on Fire, we plunge into an 18th-century period drama where two young women, Marianne and Héloise, find love and sexual passion in each other’s arms, only to be forced to give it up for the sake of convention. As their hearts and bodies erupt in feeling, they dare to breathe deeply for the first time, their loosened corsets releasing more than just bosoms. Sciamma (Girlhood) trains her lens on each longing glance and lingering gesture, examining the female gaze from a multiplicity of angles, without corporal objectification. She allows her characters the space they need to grow and express every ounce of their repressed individuality.

We begin with Marianne (Noémie Merlant, Jumbo), who at the start of the film is well past the events of that will make up the main narrative. A painter and a teacher, she is in the midst of instructing a class of girls when one of them notices an old portrait of a young woman with her dress on fire (the titular work). This prompts a flashback, and we encounter a younger Marianne as she debarks from a skiff on a remote shore near Brittany’s Quiberon peninsula. Alone, she makes her way, with materials in hand, to the house of Héloise (Adèle Haenel, BPM (Beats Per Minute)), a daughter of the provincial gentry whose mother has hired Marianne to paint her likeness, which will be sent to Héloise’s future husband as a prenuptial gift. What complicates the matter is that Héloise does not wish to marry (she has never met the man), and she and her mother are in mourning after the recent suicide of the eldest daughter. Marianne will therefore have to pose as a hired companion, there to relieve the boredom and depression of the place and time.

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE ©Neon

And so begins a slow acquaintance, as painter studies subject under the pretense of a budding friendship. Little by little, as they exchange information and spend increasingly intimate moments together, Marianne and Héloise fall in love, though we recognize the signs before they are willing to. In a world of limited options, they choose to exercise what personal agency they have – especially once Héloise’s mother leaves on a trip – to seize the opportunity and experience that which will soon be taken away. It is no accident that Sciamma has set the film in 1770, as her research revealed that this was an era when female portrait painters existed in no small quantity, before the ensuing century would tighten gender expectations. Carpe diem, for the night looms dark and gloomy.

Gorgeously photographed in bleak browns and blues, seemingly illuminated only by a winter sun and dim candles, Portrait of a Lady on Fire gives light to that which few would see. Beyond the lesbianism – which is central to the plot but not its only focus – the film is equally about women wresting command of their fates, if only briefly. Merlant and Haenel are brilliant in their roles, communicating as much with silences as with dialogue, their indelible portrait seared into our consciousness long after the credits roll. It burns, but in the best possible way.

Noémie Merlant in PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE ©Neon

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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