Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Movie poster for Portrait of a Lady on Fire. A young blonde woman smiles, looking somewhat displeased, at the center of the image. She stands in great darkness, wearing a nineteenth-century period gown. The bottom of her gown is on fire.

Content Warnings: Self-induced abortion; non-graphic depiction of abortion

Genre: Sapphic Historical Romance

“On an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the eighteenth century, a female painter is obliged to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman.”

IMDb blurb

Directed and written by Céline Sciamma

RATING out of 10 violets, with 1 being the least and 10 being the most pain

3/10 soft, breathy violets.

This review contains spoilers.

For a film where they don’t end up together because of historical circumstance, I got an immense amount of joy from this film. It’s soft, and it’s safe, and there is absolutely no homophobia. Refreshing!

When Héloïse (Adèle Haenel)’s mother leaves town to leave female painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to her work, the two women are left entirely alone… with the exception of young Sophie, the housemaid who isn’t naïve as to why Héloïse and Marianne sleep in the same room. Nobody threatens to apprehend their love affair, and the one who knows is blissfully indifferent to it. And this has nothing to do with the fact that the young women helped her secure a safe abortion.

I was charmed by Héloïse’s pessimistic standoffishness–especially when it melts into softness as she gets to know the painter–and by the way intimacy is established in how they pay such close attention to each other’s quirks and gestures. For a film that avoids graphic depictions of sex, this one still manages to be so sultry. I’m still breathless thinking about the scene where they use the plant that “makes you fly.” I also love the film’s engagement with the Orpheus and Eurydice myth–it seems like Sapphics just can’t keep away from mythology, especially the stuff that talks about fate and belonging and love.

Now let’s talk about the ending. We knew Héloïse’s mother was coming home, and we knew Héloïse would have to marry a man. And we were expecting her to leave. But what I didn’t expect was for there to be something after the pain of separation–and dare I say the pain’s almost entirely erased by what comes afterward. My favorite scene of the entire film is when Marianne is in the gallery several years later and sees a portrait of Héloïse and her daughter. The painting depicts Héloïse holding her book open to page 28, the page on which Marianne sketched an image of herself for Héloïse to keep. The smile on Marianne’s face tells us that this film isn’t meant to make us wallow in the pain of what could’ve been; it’s meant to let us revel in the sumptuous joy of what was. And not even the final scene where Marianne sees Héloïse across the opera house, devolving into tears at the sheer power of the music (and, ostensibly, at the memory of her time with Marianne) is enough to get us down.

This film is a gift. No, a treasure.


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