Fittingly, given the title, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of those slow burn love stories that rarely goes beyond a simmer but weaves the tension throughout. It feels, in many ways, like your typical French film, breathy and quiet and slow in all the right ways. Together, these qualities work to tell a small yet impactful story not often seen in period pieces.
Set in 1770 France, Marianna (Noemie Merland) is commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel), who is marrying her sister’s betrothed after her sister’s untimely death (largely hinted to be suicide). Angry at the arranged marriage, Heloise refuses to sit for the portrait, forcing Marianna to lie and say she is there to be a companion, stealthily painting at night from her daytime glimpses. Set from Marianna’s point of view, we’re introduced to Heloise in snippets, first her face is entirely shrouded by her cloak, then we glance her blonde hair, then her ear before we get a full view of her face.
As they get to know one another, the two bond over the harsh realities of being a woman at that time. Heloise must marry an Italian man she’s never met while Marianna is a painter only because her father is one, and is restricted to painting women, leaving the “real” subjects to men. They befriend the house servant, Sophie, who confides in them that she is three months pregnant and openly pursues methods of stopping the pregnancy.
The emphasis on the restricted roles of women gives the film a thoroughly modern viewpoint, especially combined with the physical relationship that Marianna and Heloise develop. That’s not to say this modern outlook is detracting, but it pervades the film in such a way that it forces you to see that these frank conversations and relationships were happening during this time, but since it happened in the “unimportant” realm of women, it wasn’t considered worth documenting.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is alternately mesmerizing and lethargic. Still, it portrays a slice of life not often seen on screen and illustrates that while women were not afforded much luxury of choice in that time, they built their own little worlds and celebrated each other, even if no one else would.