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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Dan's Review: "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is a rare work of art

Mar 02, 2020 09:45PM ● By Dan Metcalf

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in Portrait of a Lady on Fire - © 2020 Pyramide/Neon.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Pyramide/Neon)

Rated R for some nudity and sexuality.

Starring Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, and Valeria Golino.

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma.



Some may say that the best love stories are the tragic ones. Maybe it’s because the pain of being separated from your soulmate is more exquisite than the reality of the “ever after” that follows the passion and romance of the “happy ending” ones. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the latest film from the celebrated French Director Céline Sciamma is one of the former types of love stories, with themes of forbidden love and separation.

Set in the 1700s, it’s the story of Marianne, a French painter commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse, the daughter of a countess (Valeria Golino) on a remote island off the northwestern coast of France. The portrait is intended to be given to an Italian nobleman, to whom Héloïse is betrothed. Héloïse had previously refused to sit for a portrait because she did not want to marry. Marianne poses as her companion, secretly studying her physical features and committing them to the canvas. As their friendship grows, Marianne reveals the true nature of her mission to the island and shows the painting to Héloïse, who criticizes it. Marianne burns the painting in a show of solidarity and Héloïse then agrees to sit for a portrait. Their friendship eventually grows into a passionate sexual affair, but both women know that such a relationship cannot survive the cultural norms and that Héloïse will do her noble duty. Marianne’s new portrait is acceptable, even if their separation is painful.

Perhaps unfairly overlooked by most of the recent mainstream awards selectors, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautiful work of art in its own right. The “refuted love of the times” theme mY feel a little overdone, perhaps fitting a little too nicely into a contrast between modern acceptance of same-sex love and a “weren’t those 18th Century cultural norms so cruel?” hand-wringing. Behind the lesbian aspect of the conflict lies a more universal truth, suggesting that doing one’s duty is often accompanied by painful, personal sacrifice. There’s also an equally universal truth in the film, advocating the libertarian ideal of self-determination, which is often taken for granted in these modern times.

Beyond the deeper and more passionate themes are two exquisite performances by Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel as the leading ladies, displaying palpable chemistry between the characters they play. It should also be noted that the paintings created for the film are equally brilliant, along with some spectacular cinematography from Claire Mathon.

Again, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (presented in French with English subtitles) is a film that contains sexuality between two women. While not entirely graphic, if such themes make you squeamish, maybe this isn’t for you. Then again, if you don’t mind escaping to another era and seeing a little beauty while experiencing the exquisite pain of love refuted, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a bit of cinematic art suitable for framing.        

"Portrait of a Lady on Fire" Trailer