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Five Cent Cine: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

American audiences may stay away from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” because it’s so French: slow-paced, quiet, subtle, restrained, thoughtful (even intellectual), and all about women relating to women (the few men in the film are of no consequence, and one says only “bonjour”).

That would be a shame, because this is a beautiful and compelling love story, impeccably crafted and narrated, exquisitely acted.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” takes place almost entirely on a high-cliffed island off the coast of Brittany in the late 18th century, before the invention of photography, where Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) lives with her mother (La Comtesse, Valeria Golino) and their maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). To Héloïse’s sorrow, because she has no real options (a reminder of “Little Women,” 2019), her mother has taken her from a convent and arranged for her to be married to an Italian who lives in Milan, where the couple would reside.

Héloïse’s marriage depends on the suitor’s evaluation and approval of a painted portrait of her. One painter has failed—because Héloïse refuses to pose—and a second, this time a woman, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), is brought to the island, in the guise of a walking companion whose status as an artist is for a time withheld from Héloïse.

It’s more than an hour into the film before Héloïse smiles, and even longer for her to laugh. Director and screenwriter Céline Sciamma, whose script won the screenwriting award at Cannes, said she needed patience to resist the temptation to have Héloïse smile in earlier scenes. Here and elsewhere, the spare script is smart and witty. When Marianne confesses to the young maid that Héloïse never laughs, Sophie replies, “have you tried being funny?” And later, when the first of Marianne’s portraits is revealed and Héloïse is (justifiably) critical, Marianne says “I didn’t know you were an art critic,” to which Héloïse responds with a double-edged line, “I didn’t know you were a painter.”

As this exchange reveals, there are tensions in the relationship, especially because Marianne’s work is designed to facilitate a marriage that Héloïse doesn’t want. In contrast to Héloïse, Marianne has her profession, will inherit her father’s painting practice and can choose not to marry. But Sciamma rightly insists that her screenplay was constructed to avoid the conflict/love arc that has been at the center of Hollywood love stories since Tracy and Hepburn argued their way to romance. “Film is ideas,” Sciamma insists, and you’ve got to stick to them.

How then, do Héloïse and Marianne fall in love, if not through conflict and its sublimation? Theorists of the “gaze” (assuming they still exist) will be heartened to know that our protagonists deepen their relationship by looking at each other. We’ll leave it to these theorists to decipher the details, but for Sciamma it’s less about who’s looking at whom than about rhythm—about when, and how. Audiences will be looking too—at two very different women: thin-faced Marianne, with her small bones and huge, dark eyes; and complementary Héloïse, large-featured, blonde and blue-eyed, simmering with sensuality and interiority.

Because there’s no obvious future for this same-sex couple, love is made and maintained and re-experienced through memory: a drawing in a book; a metaphorical reading/interpretation of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice; the music of Vivaldi in a final scene—one of the few uses of music in the film—that emotionally evokes for Héloïse a moment from their shared past.

The film’s excursions into feminism and class produce uneven results.

The film’s excursions into feminism and class produce uneven results. On the one hand, the cross-class and all-female friendship that develops with Sophie when La Comtesse leaves the house—and when Sophie becomes pregnant—seems comfortable and natural, and it’s accomplished through a script that avoids heavy-handed moralizing and unnecessary detail. On the other hand, an evening on the beach with the wives of Brittany, who sing folks songs to intricate, hand-clapping rhythms and complex harmonies, while atmospheric and mesmerizing, takes the notion of female solidarity a trifle too far. Perhaps it was necessary—after all, the lady’s got to be set on fire.

Date: 2019 (like “Parasite,” distributed by Neon)

Stars: 3.5 (out of 4 stars)

Director: Céline Sciamma

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

Language: French, Italian; subtitled in English.

Runtime: 121 minutes

Opened widely – but not everywhere – on Valentine’s Day (Buffalonians try St Catharines and Toronto).  Not streaming yet, but should be soon because it was purchased for distribution by Neon (which purchased and promoted “Parasite”) in connection with Hulu. 

Available: Streaming on Hulu and rental and purchase Amazon Video and elsewhere, per JustWatch here.

Also see reviews on…

Uncut Gems

Les Misérables

The Last Black Man in San Francisco



Little Women

Marriage Story

Queen & Slim

The Irishman


Cold Brook

Jojo Rabbit

Pain & Glory ( Dolor y Gloria)



Downton Abbey

Ad Astra

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

The Goldfinch

Good Boys

Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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