I’d describe “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” as being the diet version of a Shakespearian tragedy — if the two star-crossed lovers were lesbians who didn’t die in the end.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” set in late 18th century France, is a story of forbidden love. Directed by Céline Sciamma, the story is dramatic and truly haunting; the way the film is shot feels almost like a horror movie at times. The camera often follows the characters from behind as they walk from room to room of the French chateau in which they live, building anticipation in the viewer as the scene unfolds.
This period piece is sans-men, one of my favorite qualities in a film. The film follows three principle female characters, Marianne, a painter commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse, the daughter of an aristocratic family, who had previously refused to be painted. Because of this, Marianne is presented with a challenge — she must paint Héloïse without her knowing. Héloïse is told by her mother that Marianne has been hired as her companion and the two begin to walk by the beaches of France, slowly engaging in deeper conversation as the days pass. Héloïse and Marianne eventually become fond of one another. The pair also cultivate a close bond with Sophie, the chateau’s maid, while Héloïse’s mother is away.
As Marianne comes to terms with her romantic love for Héloïse, she begins to become plagued with visions of Héloïse in a bright white wedding dress. This recurring image reinforces the reality that the two will never be allowed to be together publicly and must conduct their romantic relationship entirely in private and on limited time. After all, once the painting is complete and Héloïse’s mother returns, Marianne must leave.
The film is a slow-burner with ample sexual tension between Marianne and Héloïse. In this way, it feels much like “Call Me By Your Name” directed by Luca Guadagnino. “Call Me By Your Name” is more playful by comparison, as it is set in the 1980’s. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is more reserved, in keeping with the era. It has much less dialogue, with a strong dependence on the characters’ facial expressions to further the story. In this way, the actors are incredibly nuanced.
Full attention must be paid to this movie when watching. It is accessible through Hulu, so I streamed it on my laptop, which felt like a disservice to the cinematographer. This is a film meant to be on the big screen where the chateau and the beach may be seen in their full glory. That being said, my recommendation is to stream the film on a television, turn off cell phones and make a bucket of popcorn to make it feel as much like a theatrical viewing as possible. Allow yourself to be swept away into the world created by Céline Sciamma.
One of my criteria for what makes a good film is if it can make me cry. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” met this requirement. The ending, which I won’t spoil, caught me off guard and was so tender and authentic, I could not help but quietly weep.
In my opinion, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is more beautiful than it is heartbreaking, because the viewer knows they cannot be together in the end for the film is not a fantasy. Their love is hopeless. But this doesn’t mean it is meaningless.