Knowing that I was going into 2021 with a massive movie backlog, I decided to start the year off right: by watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I’ve had this film on blu-ray since it was released by the Criterion Collection last summer, but the time never felt right to put it in and watch it…until now.
Set in the 18th century, Portrait of a Lady on Fire follows a painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), as she is hired to surreptitiously paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) prior to her arranged marriage to a Milanese nobleman. Over the course of two weeks, Marianne and Héloïse come to know each other very well, and a relationship forms between them, all while a “proper” portrait of Héloïse is put together.
I can’t overstate how much Portrait of a Lady on Fire blew me away. This isn’t like any film I’ve ever seen before. For one, there’s no musical score, though at the same time this isn’t a film without music. All of the music in this film is diegetic, meaning it occurs completely within the film world. And brilliantly, the few times the music is employed in the film means it is used for maximum effect, like when Marianne is playing a piece for Héloïse or that final scene with the orchestra.
It’s the relationship between Marianne and Héloïse that forms the crux of the story however, and it left me spellbound from the moment it started. With no musical score to otherwise distract you, you are painfully aware of each woman’s gaze upon the other, something that only grows more acute as the story goes on. So much of this story is based in looks and silence, with entire portions passing by with no real dialogue. And yes, it is completely heartbreaking to see these two fall for each other, since anyone who knows a fraction of anything about 18th century France knows that this relationship has no chance of succeeding since same sex relationships (especially between women) were taboo.
Something I didn’t expect? A really cool tie in to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, with the former being a legendary musician who went into the depths of Hades to reclaim his lost love Eurydice only to lose her once and for all at the last moment. I didn’t fully understand why the film wandered into this territory until Marianne said her last goodbye to Héloïse and I realized, with a start, that in this context Marianne is Orpheus and Héloïse is Eurydice. This is like a modern take on the story of Orpheus, only with art instead of music! Learning that made me love this story so much more than I already did.
Also, I have to compliment the film’s setting. This remote island the story takes place on, with the vibrant blue ocean, is beautiful in a primal sort of way (and maybe that was the point). Also, the house most of the film takes place in is really beautiful too, it feels ancient and modern all at the same time if that makes sense. I really love the space Marianne sets up as her studio, so much of the action takes place there, it’s a space I wish I could visit in real life. Speaking of seeing in real life, I wish I could see those paintings as well. On a final note, I also like the brief period of domestic bliss set up between Marianne, Héloïse and Sophie (the maid). It’s a tantalizingly brief glimpse of how peaceful a life could be when set up between women. It’s so refreshing that it’s physically jarring when a man shows up towards the end of the film, like a spell was broken.
What I’m attempting to say is that Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Everyone needs to see this film at least once before they die, and that is a fact.
Let me know what you think about Portrait of a Lady on Fire in the comments below and have a great day!
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