Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

I have seen only a handful of foreign films in my lifetime, but I have loved pretty much all of them. The latest one in that list is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a French film set in the 1770s about two women. I watched it on the plane on my way back from visiting my brother this weekend, and it was so, so good. If you haven’t watched it, go do that and then come back here to tell me what you think.

This review contains spoilers!

Synopsis

Image from IMDB

Off the coast of Brittany, France, Marianne, a female painter, is hired to paint the wedding portrait of a young woman. Heloise, the betrothed, has refused to sit for previous painters, so she has been told Marianne is simple a companion for walks, and Marianne must paint in secret. What follows is the story of friendship, betrayal, loss, and love.

Review

The thing I noticed about this movie before anything else was the cinematography. The setting is absolutely gorgeous, full of muted candlelight juxtaposed against the ocean in full sun, and you really get to take it all in due to the deliberate pace of the filming. There are tons of long close-up shots as the characters speak and react, with other characters moving around out of the shot and then entering and exiting the frame. There is no extra camera movement in this film, and that’s the thing that struck me first. You don’t realize how much action and movement we see in American films until you see something different. The long still shots made the movie feel more immersive and reflected the pace of the everyday life during that time. It also meant that no shots were wasted. Every single thing that happened in every shot, down to the smallest background detail, was deliberate and symbolic. Every detail threaded back to the main plot and theme. In that way alone, even if there was no overarching commentary, this film is a masterpiece.

Beyond the visual beauty of the film, the story was really really lovely. In order to be able to memorize Heloise’s features, Marianne has to bring her out of her shell a bit. They inevitably fall for each other, of course. The first half of the film is full of sexual and romantic tension, which comes to a head after Marianne reveals the truth about the painting and finds out that Heloise hates it. After that, it’s just a treat to get to watch the two navigate that conflict and acknowledge their feelings for the other. After Marianne destroys the first painting, Heloise’s mother goes away for five days on a trip and the two women, plus Sophie, the housemaid, get to spend those idyllic days basically doing whatever they want.

That part of the movie is a bit of a female utopia. There are almost no men in the film until the very end, and the stretch where Marianne, Heloise, and Sophie are living together alone shows the much more equitable world they would create were they really in control of their own lives. Sophie is the housemaid, but during this time they all act as friends and equals, going to a feast in the village, playing cards, and reading. The Greek myth that they read together, about Eurydice and Orpheus, continues to show up symbolically throughout the rest of the film in such a gorgeous way. And it’s nonintrusive the way some movie symbolism can be, even though it’s pretty heavy-handed. A Vivaldi piece that shows up earlier in the movie gets the same symbolic thread treatment.

I saw another review (that I cannot find now ugh!) that noted there was no wrestling with homosexuality like is common in other LGBTQ movies, and I noticed that while watching as well. Often the characters’ doubts and fears about same-sex relationships are at least a small part of the plot (though admittedly I haven’t seen many LGBTQ movies), but there was none of that here, even though I’d assume it was even more taboo in the 1770s than it is now. It was really refreshing to just watch two people fall in love without having to second-guess themselves, even though patriarchy was a very present concept throughout the film (and even without the presence of actual men). (I’d be interested to hear whether LGBTQ viewers found that refreshing as well? Or would you rather have seen that mentioned?)

Also, I want to point out that there is a LOT to be said for a lesbian film written and directed by a woman. It was a little racy, but it was classy and not gratuitous at all. A review in the New Yorker contrasted this perspective with the sex scenes from the male-directed Blue is the Warmest Color, which is apparently six minutes long (!) and was humiliating to film. I haven’t seen Blue, but it’s no secret that lesbian relationships are often fetishized and it was nice not to have to watch around that.

There were only a couple things that confused me a bit about this movie. The first involves Sophie’s plotline. While Heloise’s mother is gone, we find out that Sophie is pregnant and has been waiting for her to leave so she can get an abortion. A good chunk of the movie is dedicated to the two lovers trying to help Sophie induce a miscarriage, and caring for her after a more intrusive abortion when herbals don’t work. The abortion is actually shown onscreen, in yet another nod to the “female gaze” and the female experience. It’s treated matter-of-factly, the way the women’s relationship is treated as well, and it demonstrates both another facet of female love and also another way the patriarchy suppressed them all. However, there’s one scene that confused me – after the abortion, Heloise asks Sophie if she’s well enough to get up and has her reenact the abortion so that Marianne can paint it. This was the only moment in the film where I felt like any character was being used as a plot device – Heloise didn’t ask Sophie whether she wanted to pose or even have a painting of the abortion. I felt it erased her agency, since she presumably wanted to keep it private by waiting until Heloise’s mother had left. It was especially disconcerting given that Sophie is very much her own character otherwise.

The other thing I noticed was the way Heloise’s sister was used in the plot. Yes, that’s right – Heloise had a sister, who was originally the one slated to marry the mystery man, but escaped her fate when she falls – or more likely jumps – off a cliff. Her sister’s death was the whole reason Heloise was there on the island waiting to be painted in the first place. In the beginning of the movie, knowing that, I thought that grief and anger about that would be more of a theme, but other than one discussion between Marianne and Heloise towards the beginning of their relationship, and a brief mention between Marianne and Heloise’s mother, it wasn’t really discussed. Perhaps adding that in would have added too much to the plotline, but I wish that had been explored a little more. It could have added a layer to the female relationships that were being explored.

Those two nitpicks I have did not have a big effect on my enjoyment of the movie at all. I really, really loved this. It was beautiful, it was poignant, and the acting was completely top notch. This is a definite recommend.

2 comments

  1. I find it realistic that family members wouldn’t talk about the sister’s death, especially in the 1770s, especially since there was some culpability. I think *not* talking about it could be used maybe not as a plot device, but as an acting device. The movie sounds wonderful. I’ll add it to the long list of movies I’ll never see that I should.

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