Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Written and directed by acclaimed French filmmaker Céline Sciamma and nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautifully shot and deeply emotional romantic drama that is remarkable for the acting performances given by the two French actresses. Set in 18th century France, the film has a rather straightforward and patiently evolving plot that explores the burgeoning and extremely forbidden love between the two female protagonists who first meet under unusual circumstances. The painter Marianne, played by Noémie Merlant, is commissioned by a female aristocrat to travel to her barebones chateau on a remote island off the coast of Brittany, France to paint a wedding portrait of her beautiful daughter Héloïse, played by Adèle Haenel. Héloïse is to be married off to a man of nobility in Milan, Italy who she has never met and is very much opposed to getting married, especially to somebody who lives so far away. In hopes of calling off the wedding, she refuses to pose for a portrait that would be sent to her future husband for his approval, and, therefore, her mother eventually decides to hire Marianne to secretly paint a portrait of her daughter. The lonely and quite depressed Héloïse believes that Marianne is there to serve as a paid companion, and they go on long walks across the windswept desolate island that give Marianne the opportunity to memorize Héloïse’s features in order to paint Héloïse in secret. Eventually, the two sumptuously dressed women, who are mostly by themselves besides the quiet and friendly maid Sophie, played by Luàna Bajrami, begin to form a strong bond of friendship that over time evolves into a very intimate and romantic relationship. Strictly forbidden by society, they must keep their profound love for one another a secret, especially from the aristocratic mother who is desperate to marry Héloïse off to a wealthy aristocrat. The filmmaker does a terrific job of showing how relationships develop in real life by having the film take a slow pace that allows the viewer to observe the subtle changes in the two women as they come to strike a strong bond. Towards the end of the movie, the audience feels a certain degree of heartbrokenness as it becomes evident that their truly deep romance must inevitably come to an end as their time together dwindles and society would never allow them to live together as lovers. Overall, I found it to be a exquisitely crafted and slow, for better or worse, film that is helmed by a very talented filmmaker who is able to create a evocative setting in which forbidden love between two wonderfully acted characters could realistically develop.