A painter named Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of a young woman named Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who is in an arranged marriage. Héloïse’s mother La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) wants Marianne to work on the painting in secret as her daughter has refused to sit for portraits before. Thus Marianne works on the painting while posing as a companion to Héloïse. Eventually their friendship develops into a great love affair.
Having already hit cinemas in other countries and won various awards – including the Best Screenplay and Queer Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival – ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ makes its way to our shores and truly it is a masterpiece to behold. Writer-director Céline Sciamma has previously impressed with such works as ‘Tomboy’, ‘Girlhood’ and ‘Naissance des pieuvres’ (‘Water Lilies’) and moving onto more mature subject matters than these coming-of-age features bodes well for Sciamma as she has produced her greatest work to date.
‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ draws much from its title as its Brittany-set backdrops look painterly. Watching Marianne at work is mesmerising while the walks she and Héloïse take on the beach and by the cliffs are breath-taking in their beauty. The dialogue is palpable with feeling and energy, the leads Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, who are both exquisite, speaking in irresistible metaphors. The costume design by Dorothée Guiraud is also impressive, simple yet effective, and symbolism and allegory is integrated while never feeling hammy.
Sciamma presents a feminist story which looks at such topics as inequality, abortion, and arranged marriage. Small details like seeing the women tie each other up in corsets or caress one another’s body hair make this very much a story about women and liberation. It never feels inauthentic or cheap, but honest and emotionally raw.
The second half of the film where La Comtesse exits on a trip and maid Sophie – another impressive performance here from Luàna Bajrami – takes centre stage alongside Marianne and Héloïse is where ‘Portrait’ is at its strongest, most interesting, and most moving. The three women form a utopia, and you wish their time together could last forever, but sadly we know there’s only one way it can all end. Still, after those final credits, ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is such an extraordinary work that it will linger with you long after that tearful finale.