Cordelia’s Review of Portrait of a Lady on Fire

This was delightful, if slightly messy.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a French film which, according to my lovely wife, “is about lesbians painting in France or something, so we’ll probably like it.” And indeed we did, more than I think we really expected to, to be honest.

I shall try not to spoil the ending of the film if I can avoid it, but be warned that there will likely be some spoilers for this film over the next several paragraphs.

The basic premise of the film is that Marianne is a painter who’s been commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse, the daughter of a wealthy landowner who has been promised in marriage to a wealthy man in Milan, pulled out of a convent to replace her sister, who recently committed suicide. At first, Marianna must pretend to be a companion to Héloïse, painting her in secret, but eventually the ruse is discovered and Héloïse agrees to pose for the portrait, as the two of them begin a romantic relationship that is, of course, doomed to end badly.

I will say that neither of the women dies or anything horrible, but rest assured that it’s a very emotional film. Though presented very quietly, it leaves you feeling touched. The last thirty minutes or so are a bit cluttered and disconnected, but otherwise, the story remains emotionally consistent throughout, and very compelling for that.

I suppose I may as well discuss those last thirty minutes. In this time, a conflict is arbitrarily introduced between Marianne and Héloïse, then near immediately resolved. A series of disconnected scenes tie together the conclusion of the narrative, which I must say brakes the immersion in the film a little. It feels almost as though the writer had very good ideas and then wasn’t certain how to end the film as a whole. It hardly ruins the story, but it was somewhat disappointing.

What I very much enjoyed about the film was the way in which it depicted relationships between women. Not only romantically, though of course that is the main relationship, but also friendships and mother/daughter relationships, all portrayed with a great deal of depth and seriousness. The friendship that Héloïse and Marianne have with the live-in made Sophie is very nice to watch, and as they deal with Sophie’s unwanted pregnancy, you very much see the importance of that bond for all three of them.

In fact, there are no men in almost the entirety of the film. A few rowers at the beginning bring Marianne to the island, and then after that we never see another man until the very end of the film, when the sudden appearance of a porter in the house very much feels like an intrusion. It represents, of course, the end of Marianne’s time with Héloïse, but the way it is framed also makes it represent a greater intrusion, and it’s quite masterfully done. It was nice to be in an imaginary space that was all-female for a little while, I must admit.

I think that’s the beauty of the film as well. It can be seen, and has been by many, as an exercise in the female gaze, the way women see each other and the world, the eyes of men absent from the experience. The film is written and directed by women, and I found it shows in the way the female body was presented, both sexually and not. Again, it was just very nice to see.

The acting is masterful in this film, and I hope the principal actors end up doing further work in the future. They were all compelling for different reasons, and again, it was a challenge to look away at any point in the film. I was entirely captivated and I must say, it was mostly because of their performances.

So, I highly recommend Portrait of a Lady on Fire to anyone who enjoys a well-crafted film, and of course anyone who wants to spend a lovely evening out with their wife.

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