REVIEW: ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ Teaches us Patience is a Virtue

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“Sensual, personal and exquisite.”

French director, Céline Sciamma, delves away from the younger protagonists centres from her previous works to bring us Portrait of a Lady of Fire, an intimate look at a whirlwind lesbian romance in 18th Century France.

Young artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), follows in her father’s artistic footsteps and is commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of the elusive Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who has befallen her sister’s fate of being forced into an arraigned marriage after her sudden death. Héloïse is defiant against the wishes of her mother, so Marianne must paint her subject in secret, using the guise of a partner to walk with to gain access to Héloïse’s enigmatic exterior. Over the period of Marianne’s stay, the pair grow close and ignite a relationship that’s flame only seems to grow. But with Héloïse’s destiny inescapable, their romance is threatened by the impending reality of the future that is set out for them.

Portrait is a testament to the power of filmmaking and a beautifully crafted addition to the limited number of lesbian films that grace our screens. Speaking at Cannes Film Festival, Sciamma said in regard to Portrait: “My idea was to really look into what it was like to fall in love, to be in love.” This is an aspect that radiates throughout the film’s entirety. It takes its time and lets the audience linger on each moment, never rushing to achieve audience satisfaction. Instead, Portrait makes us wait and experience every fleeting moment with Marianne and Héloïse allowing us to fall in love with them and their relationship just as much as they do. Sciamma makes patience a virtue, and one we are enthralled by.

Merlant and Haenel’s performances as the leading ladies are breath-taking. They layer every look with growing anticipation and their carefully crafted expressions show their fleeting thoughts with a simple glance, which is enough to set our souls on fire. As two of only a few characters in the film, Merlant and Haenel make patience a virtue and help to hammer home Sciamma’s desire to create a story that feels real, beautiful, and devoid of the male gaze which we are so often subjected to.  

A blonde woman - Héloïse - begins to remove the dark outer-layer of her dress whilst looking out on the beach.
Image Courtesy of IMDB

The gradual build to Héloïse’s reveal is one of the true highlights of the film. We feel as if we have earned to see her, and that her eventual reveal is an event in itself – which for Marianne, it is. Sophie, the maid, reveals she has not seen Héloïse in the three years she has been working for her family . This combined with Marianne’s seemingly impossible task Heloise’s first appearance already seems like an event. Yet, Sciamma doesn’t stop there. Héloïse and Marianne’s first outing is brimming with intrigue as Héloïse walks ahead, refusing to give Marianne a single glimpse at her features. It is only when the sea breeze throws Héloïse’s hood from her head that we are greeted with her first true on-screen appearance, and the awe we feel is just the same as Marianne’s. 

Similarly, Portrait’s final shot is a testament to acting, direction and filmmaking brilliance. A combination of the films key themes meshed into a singular long take breath-taking. Fixating on Héloïse, everything ties together in an emotional close. The camera refuses to lose sight of Héloïse in these agonising final moments and shows an immense sense of trust between Sciamma and Haenel – who delivers an award-worthy performance in these final moments. Simple yet effective, Sciamma’s final note is one that leaves you on a high.

Portrait is sensual, personal and exquisite. A play on an artist and their muse in the most profound fashion, Portrait embraces the sensuality of a lesbian relationship, treating it with nothing but respect and admiration. It captures the true tenderness between Marianne and Héloïse and allows us to fall in love with them just as they fall for each other.