Making the Poet’s Choice: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” A Stunning Film About Art and Love

The streaming platform Hulu released Portrait of a Lady on Fire on March 27 for subscribers.

Halfway through French director Céline Sciamma’s inspiring period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it occurred to me: there had not been a single man on screen for over an hour.

In fact, there are no men in the film except in the first and last few minutes and, even then, they interact with the characters minimally, only say a few passing words, or appear as faces in a crowd.

This is not to extol the virtues of a film without men, but to highlight the felicity and potency with which Portrait’s three women easily carry the feature’s engrossing two hours.

A gorgeous film, Portrait immerses you immediately in the bleakness of its exteriors—an all-but-empty 18th-century seaside manor, the windswept cliffs and beach abutting a cold, turbulent ocean—and the richness of its deeply private interiors—the painter’s studio, her brushwork, her mind and memories. The outwardly simple plot belies a complex register of profound emotions, discoveries and hopes. 

Commissioned by a woman’s mother to paint her reluctant daughter’s portrait, painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) finds herself in the family’s remote mansion alone with only the woman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), and a servant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami).

The portrait is for a would-be suitor who has demanded the painting before committing to marriage, a marriage Héloïse strongly opposes. Marianne must study Héloïse without her knowledge, accompanying her on long walks on the beach, watching her surreptitiously, and then painting furtively at night from memory.

Marianne’s ruse predictably doesn’t last long, and as Héloïse discovers Marianne’s true purpose, the two women also begin to grow closer, eventually developing an intimate sexual relationship all the more intense for the tragic limits of its possibility.

Héloïse and Marianne only have a few days before Héloïse’s mother returns and the completion of the portrait resonates as both a sign of Marianne’s devotion and a sigil of Héloïse’s inevitable marriage.

Although she’s a supporting character, Sophie, too, offers a captivating glimpse into the interior lives of servants and other household staff. An unassuming presence, Sophie is nevertheless imbued with a complex psyche, not fully explored and yet visible at the margins of her actions and words. During Héloïse’s and Marianne’s time in the house, Sophie discovers she’s pregnant.

The compassionate, thoughtful ways in which the three women navigate her attempts to abort the pregnancy speak volumes about the potential for mutual support, care and work among women—all of whom have learned differently how to mitigate the constraints bestowed on them due to their gender and social station.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a brilliant and visually stunning meditation on the meaning of art and love, as well as the choices we make as artists and lovers. (UniFrance / YouTube)

Moreover, Sciamma’s film lives up to the promises of a female gaze—not only because the film is written and directed by a woman, but also due to its remarkable portrayal of emotional intimacy between the characters and for the film’s viewers.

The few sex scenes in the film are romantic, erotic and lovingly shot—without feeling remotely objectifying. The women are all agents of their own desires: particularly notable for a period in which women were presumed to have no agency.

Most importantly, Portrait does not play tricks on its viewers; it does not lead us into traps of either false hope or overwhelming tragedy. It offers a human story of love under difficult circumstances and delivers tenfold.

“Do all lovers feel as if they’re inventing something?” Héloïse asks Marianne, both emboldened and bereft in a moment that, like so many in the film, emphasizes the centrality of images, of looking, and of feeling, and all the more strengthened by the script’s economy of language.

Ambient and diegetic sound also play a crucial role in the film; the sounds of a fire crackling and Marianne’s fingers scraping charcoal resolutely over a canvas reverberate with as much calculated intensity as every spoken word.

Midway through the film, Marianne reads the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice aloud to Héloïse and Sophie, and the three trouble over Orpheus’ reasons for looking back in the final moments of his wife’s rescue, thereby dooming her to Hades for eternity.

Maybe, Héloïse suggests, Orpheus made the poet’s choice, rather than the lover’s; perhaps memory has the power to preserve love and beauty beyond the boundary of life and death.  

The myth works in the film on several levels, lending its metaphors to offer Portrait a notable tightness of narrative closure and fulfillment, refusing an easy ending while flawlessly avoiding cliché.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a brilliant and visually stunning meditation on the meaning of art and love, as well as the choices we make as artists and lovers.

Céline Sciamma has gifted us with a beautifully crafted, rousing film that will surely resonate far beyond its initial viewings and inspire future filmmakers and viewers to trust the unique impact, depth, and potential of women’s stories.

About

Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Arizona State University and Contributing Editor, Scholar Writing Program for Ms.