Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

portrait of a lady on fire poster 2019 movie
9.5 Overall Score
Story: 9/10
Acting: 10/10
Visuals: 10/10

Great looking, great cast, complex story


Movie Info

Movie Name:  Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Studio:  Lilies Films/Arte France Cinema/Hold Up Films

Genre(s):  Drama/Romance

Release Date(s):  May 19, 2019 (Cannes)/September 18, 2019 (France)/February 14, 2020 (US)

MPAA Rating:  R

portrait of a lady on fire dress burning heloise adele haenel

Burn, baby, burn

Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a young painter with a task.  She has been hired to paint the portrait of a young woman named Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in preparation for marriage after the death of her sister.  Héloïse doesn’t want her portrait painted and has resisted all attempts for artists to do so.  Under the guise that she is a companion, Marianne is trying to study Héloïse and find a way to paint the woman she is…but something is growing inside both Héloïse and Marianne…and it is about to burn free.

Directed by Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu aka Portrait of a Young Lady on Fire) is a French period drama.  The film premiered at Cannes and received positive reviews.  The Criterion Collection released a version of the film in the collection (Criterion #1034).

A lot of people I know were big fans of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and my attempts to watch it always fell through…as the library copy always seemed to be checked out.  Being loaned the Criterion Collection, I finally got to see the film…and it was a very good film.

portrait of a lady on fire heloise beach green dress adele haenel

Can’t get a more perfect shot than this…

The movie is a story about lonely people who finally find each other…but it also about independence.  Both Marianne and Héloïse want something different for their lives.  They both want their independence, but quickly find themselves in love because of their shared mentality.  Instead of being bitter about what occurred between them, there feels like a sense of power in a shared secret and moment that only they understand.

The cast is fantastic.  It is a rare film with very few men (and no main characters who are men).  Noémie Merlant has the meatier role as more of the lead and outside observer.  She is studying and falling in love with the other character because she can’t capture her…there is also a hint that she might wish she didn’t have to choose between a career, love, and family.  Adèle Haenel is a bigger question who has motives which are less clear.  She’s in mourning and also mourning her freedom…she admires the freedom that Marianne has which makes her the observer as well.  Neither can have each other with the Orpheus story creating a parallel.  A third character played by Luàna Bajrami is an unmarried pregnant assistant a pregnant assistant trying to lose the baby she’s accidentally conceived…she’s both trapped and free.  She’s less defined, but an interesting piece of the painting.

portrait of a lady on fire marianne draws herself mirror combined woman noemie merlant adele haenel

Can you capture a moment?

The movie’s visuals are top notch.  The locations and the natural light of the film have a real feel.  The movie has a unique style that dips deep into the female gaze which involves the female projection of the story.  The way both women are portrayed on camera takes a very feminist approach which helps make the film stand out.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire feels very different than other films, though there are some similar feeling films/stories.  The movie has a similar look to The Piano which was also about broken people with a very female gaze, but there is also something very gothic and similar to Jane Eyre which features a woman in a strange situation.  The movie isn’t an easy movie, but it is an enjoyable movie that earns its honor with two unique leads a layer story that can be watched multiple times.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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