Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Score : 91/100

Watchable Minutes: 100/122

Trailer Comparison : The trailer for this movie is difficult to compare to the actual film. It’s got the general framework and teases the romance of the film, but portrays the romance aspect as a bit more coy than the film itself does. It also almost makes you think there’s going to be a little bit of a supernatural aspect, to it but that’s not the case. 

Movie or Film : Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the filmiest film I’ve seen this year. It’s got the messaging that puts it firmly into the Films category. It also looks downright gorgeous. 

Info : 

  • Run time : 2 hrs 2 mins
  • Studio : NEON 
  • Director : Celine Sciama
  • Where to Watch : Hulu 

Summary : 

In the late eighteenth century, a young woman named Heloise is set to be married after her sister dies. Traditionally, an offering of a portrait is made to the potential suitor. If he is pleased by the portrait, they will be wed. In light of this, soon to be wed Heloise refuses to pose, so a young female painter named Marianne is sent to complete the project. Arriving with only days to complete the portrait, Marianne is instructed to pose as a walking companion so that she can complete the portrait in secret. During this time, Marianne and Heloise become close and begin to form a relationship that cannot survive. 

Review : 

I don’t watch foreign movies that often. I think that’s mostly because modern cinema is dominated by the Hollywood machine and US based projects. With so many things fighting for my attention and my money, I hardly hear about foreign films unless they are really, really good (i.e., Parasite). On paper, the concept of a period piece same sex relationship does not sound appealing to me and isn’t something I’d spend time on. I saw it was on Hulu and thought I’ve got nothing better to do, so let’s give it a shot. Had I been given the chance to see this in theaters, I don’t think I would have gone, but for some I  can see how it would have been worthwhile. 

First of all, the cinematography is top notch. It looks fantastic and, like I said in the trailer comparison, the Brittany coastline looks wonderful. I want go there just to sit and look at the ocean all day. The family manor and the woods where some scenes take place are also gorgeous. I wish central Illinois looked like that. Hell, I wish the entire mid west looked like that. The set design for the family manor was nice looking and probably super easy for the production crew to do set dressing on because only a few different rooms were ever shown. It felt large enough that I wasn’t questioning the ease to which the main characters snuck around. The other locations also looked period accurate. I don’t know if it was 100% shot on location, but it felt real enough that I could totally believe it. There is one minor critique I have. That mirror that Marianne used to sketch herself for Heloise looked terrible. It was like they took a picture in picture square and laid a mirror outline over the top. With so much care being put into the rest of the movie, I thought it was disappointing they couldn’t figure out a camera angle to make it practical.  

There’s not much to say about the audio of this film. The director made an interesting choice to not include a traditional score and instead relied on simple musical cues to reinforce the story elements. The song that the festival goers sing around the fire was fun to listen to and matched the tone of that scene perfectly. I haven’t a clue what they were saying but it sounded cool. 

The directing and editing of this movie felt very hands off. I would be very surprised if there were any scenes that were cut from the final run time. Everything felt intentional and even though I took off some watchable minutes, everything felt very purposeful. The lead actresses played well off each other. It felt like they were really into each other and I’d like to credit that to the story’s writing and the personal connection the director has to the LGBTQ+ community. I think this movie could have worked with any combination of relationships but the choice to represent that community in this film made it fresh and unique. It wasn’t a cheap grab because I could feel the authenticity. 

As good as the writing was, there was one piece that could have been left out without much of an impact on the overall story. The mini plot line about the housemaids abortion felt odd and out of place. Aside from that, the back and forth, “are they or aren’t they” questioning stretched the story to fill the run time and effectively kept me engaged. The story is very simple and easy to follow because of the concept of the doomed romance. I think that most people have a predisposition to be able to accept the tragedy of a doomed romance because it’s such a classic concept. It’s been around literally forever. My problem with romance stories is that for every one good one, there’s about two dozen bad ones. It’s difficult to sift through the garbage and find the diamonds in the rough. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of those diamonds. I don’t think I’ve seen enough romance movies to be a romance critic. I finished watching this film feeling that it was genuine and tragic. That’s good enough for me. I also think the inclusion of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice was interesting and a great story to borrow from. 

Finally, we come to what makes this film a film. The concept about how a relationship, regardless of duration, can impact somebody’s life for years afterwards is powerful and deeply impactful for the viewers as well as the characters in the film. Marianne went on to paint a portrait of Orpheus and Eurydice that featured them saying goodbye, instead of being torn apart. This mirrors the exact way the two women parted, turning to say goodbye face to face rather than never getting that last look at each other. Adding to the impact that their relationship had, Heloise was painted again years later holding a book with her finger on the page where Marianne’s self portrait sketch is hidden. It is a secret only those two know about and while Heloise had no way of knowing Marianne would see it, she did it anyway. The most powerful piece of evidence in support of the message is the final scene of the film showing Marianne’s gaze being tracked to Heloise while she tears up to the orchestras performance of Vivaldi’s “Summer”. Earlier in the film when Marianne played a rendition of “Summer” is when the two women first started to feel their relationship transform from artist and subject to lovers. There are so many things in my life that I will always associate with my girlfriend, no matter what state my life is in. The same is true for the relationships I have with my family and my friends. In some ways, we become products of those we love and they become products of us. This film reminds us that relationships are what matter, because they cultivate connections and memories that transcend time. 

This film is unique and earns all the recognition it received during its debut. I think it is a timeless story that can stand the test of time. It’s difficult to recommend this to everyone, but if you have a craving for something different, this is a good choice. 

If you like this, check out : 

  • The Princess Bride
  • La La Land

2 responses to “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”

Leave a Reply