The Power of Looking Compels 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'

Adèle Haenel as Héloïse and Noémie Merlant as Marianne in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). (IMDB)

Set in 18th century France, Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire applies ravishing historical details to the timeless poetry of forbidden love.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Céline Sciamma

mk2 Films

6 December 2019 (FR) / 14 February 2020 (US) / 28 February 2020 (UK)


In 18th century France, a young woman, a painter, sees another young woman, an aristocrat soon to be married, when no one else does. "Seeing" in this case, in the film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Céline Sciamma, implies understanding and knowing. The film, convincingly, situates such feelings as the very basis for love. Unfortunately, as is so for many dramatic tales, this is an impossible love, powerful but forbidden.

Marianne (Noémie Merlant), the painter, arrives by boat to an island in Brittany in order to paint a portrait. Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), soon to be wed, refuses to sit for the portrait, so Heloise's mother recruits Marianne as her daughter's "walking partner", telling Marianne to study her daughter's image secretly. The portrait, once completed, will act as a marriage offering to Héloïse's suitor, after which she'll be shipped off to Milan for a new life of Italian aristocracy. (Héloïse's sister, not long before the events of the film, killed herself to avoid the same fate.)

Obligingly, Marianne paints, eager to make money from her art. She enters the estate naïve but resolute, helping herself to food and wine and immediately setting off to her own quarters. She doesn't appear particularly happy or sad, but her reticence is calm instead of combative.

The same can't be said for Héloïse, whose blue-green eyes shine like a tiger's, betraying anger and despair. It doesn't take ten-minutes to gather the film's thesis on 18th century womanhood. The other two women, Héloïse's mother (Valeria Golino) and Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), the estate's maid, are resigned to suffering in their own ways. The Countess, a hardened yet compassionate woman, is simply satisfying societal expectations by relinquishing her daughter. Sophie, for her part, is trapped in a cycle of servitude, fulfilling the tragic role of the underclass.

Adèle Haenel as Héloïse and Noémie Merlant as Marianne (IMDB)

This shared reticence dissolves slowly in layers — or, to use the appropriate metaphor, stroke by stroke. Process shots of Marianne's work are frequent (the hands in these shots are Hélène Delmaire's, who painted all of the works in the film), and they offer a glimpse into her inner psychology; the drawings and paintings are basic at first, but the final product is aglow with passion. The completed portrait, the titular work, shows a bonfire on a dark prairie, Héloïse slightly off to the side and her blue dress set aflame. It's Marianne's only frame of reference once the doomed romance is no longer.

This frame is ours as well. Portrait of a Lady on Fire's romance is told in flashback, and the beginning and end of the film are bookended by an older Marianne, who is shown teaching a class of young girls and lamenting her lost love. Whatever suspense there is in the film lies not in hope but in the terror of desire, especially a queer desire that has no hope for the real world. Unlike in Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name (2017), another slow-burning, same-sex European romance, there's no possibility for Marianne and Héloïse's future. There's either no love or no future.

Héloïse, choosing the path different from her sister's, resists immediate escape in favor of a doomed love. Though her marriage is inevitable, with it comes the thrill of romance as her portrait is rendered. It bears resemblance to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which, in fact, Marianne reads to Héloïse and Sophie one night while the Countess is away. They argue about the ending — why does Orpheus choose to look back even when he knows it will lead to his damnation? It's beautiful, Marianne says. He couldn't help himself; one more look was worth an eternity of fire.

Along with painting and literature is music, which foregrounds the film's most fated event. At a gathering in a nearby village, a group of women sing "fugere non possum" (Latin for "we cannot escape") around a fire in an elaborate choral chant. Marianne and Héloïse lock eyes, feeling the pained glory of the moment, and Héloïse's dress catches fire. Although pre-kiss, the shared look is their first unambiguous shred of romantic passion, the bonfire expressing what their words can't. The next day, they consummate their burgeoning love.


Is this what Susan Sontag meant when she called for an erotics of art? It's difficult to look at Marianne's finished portrait and not feel its poignance. Her previous efforts abided by the artistic and technical constraints of the time period, but the titular portrait approaches euphoria by forgoing traditional technique entirely.

As it goes, Marianne keeps the fire portrait for herself, offering one of the more traditional efforts to the Countess as Héloïse's wedding gift. If Portrait of a Lady on Fire means to say anything about art in general, it's that technical brilliance alone is not enough. The tragic passion of Marianne and Héloïse, of Orpheus and Eurydice, is its own form of poetry, born not from the well-worn techniques of a stifling world but from a secret moment of forbidden love.

These secret moments return us to the theme of looking and seeing. Cinematographer Claire Mathon makes brilliant work out of stolen glances, which Merlant and Haenel charge with curiosity and fear. Merlant's enormous brown eyes register Marianne's vigor, whereas Haenel's reveal Héloïse's contained rage.

Nonetheless, the film's hopelessness — the inevitable heartbreak — emerges victorious in the end, necessary to its tragedy. There's something laudable about Sciamma's refusal to compromise, as though she's saying, "This is the way the world was, is, and will remain to be for those society doesn't prize." All great tragedies say the same.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.