Portrait of a Lady on Fire, or Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, is a French language historical drama released Feb. 14 in Canada, written and directed by Céline Sciamma, starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel. Céline Sciamma’s newest work shares themes of her previous titles surrounding gender, sexuality and feminism.
The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, and won for Best Screenplay and Queer Palm.
It tells the story of Marianne, played by Noémie Merlant, a young painter who is commissioned to paint the portrait of a woman named Héloïse, played by Adèle Haenel, who is to be married off to a foreign nobleman. However, because Héloïse opposes the marriage, she refuses to pose for any painter, and Marianne must paint her in secret after daily walks along the shore. As the two begin to trust each other, physical and social barriers begin to erode.
The piece has no score, instead being accented by ambient sound and diegetic music to shape a quiet, intimate space for the two lovers. Music is used sparingly, during moments of great emotional height, before leaving audiences again to near silence.
The film places heavy consequence on listening and observing. Marianne spends much of the movie quietly studying Héloïse’s features in order to paint her. The camera overwhelmingly favours her, as Marianne studies her features and slowly falls in love, the audience, too, is guided along that same journey of familiarity.
The film is overtly feminist, exchanging objectified lesbian imagery for a more subtle expression of intimacy and love. The film’s director, Céline Sciamma, was a founding member of 50×50 by 2020, a movement in french cinema, advocating for gender equality in the film industry. Her first short film, Pauline, was directed as part of a government campaign against homophobia.
Overall, the film is patient, gentle, and expertly crafted, and the love of its main characters grows in the spaces provided for it. Their isolation provides safety, and their longing organically gives way to closeness against the stunning backdrop of the peninsulas of Saint-Pierre-Quiberon.
Adèle Haenel channels passion into her portrayal of Héloïse. Her acting is grounded, honest and powerful, and her grasp on emotion is captivating without being heavy-handed.