It’s been a long time since Marianne (Noémie Merlant) saw her own painting entitled Portrait of a Lady on Fire. When one of her art students brings out the portrait it stirs memories of its subject. Years ago, Marianne was hired by La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) to draw a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The painting was to be part of her dowry when she married a wealthy gentleman from Milan. But there’s a catch. Héloïse can’t know she’s being painted. La Comtesse comes up with a ruse to hire Marianne to be Héloïse’s walking companion. As the two take sojourns Marianne studies Héloïse features and even has the house servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) pose as Héloïse. As the two bond its clear to Marianne that she is falling in love with the difficult and tortured Héloïse. Both are destined for other things and must make the most of those precious days together.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire/Portrait de la jeune fille en feu is a stunningly gorgeous and mesmerizing film. It’s pure poetry. The way the camera frames Marianne and Héloïse makes it look like we are in a living breathing work of art. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel bring an intensity that is simply awe inspiring. Director and writer Céline Sciamma offers up a lesbian love story that feels honest and true. The film is so intimate that it made me uncomfortable and almost vulnerable in a way that was exhilarating. There are no real male characters. This is a world of women and women only. The sex scenes are highly subversive and real. It’s really unlike any romantic period piece I’ve ever seen.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire had its Canadian premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Special Presentations series.