The risk with making a romance film is that it doesn’t come across as authentic enough, or worse still it reaches so far into seriousness as to become a parody of itself. Filmmakers are often not ambitious enough when it comes to romantic relationships. Either they’re carefully positioned as a secondary consideration to the plot, or at the very least wrapped up in just enough humour that they could never be accused of being cringey and over-sentimental. It takes boldness to try and shake off those usual pitfalls and to be unafraid to fail, to be unashamed to be gushy and emotional if that is what it takes.
That’s what makes Portrait of a Lady on Fire so good. Starring Noémie Merlant as portrait artist Marianne, it’s a period piece from the late 18th century which follows her story as she reflects upon when she was commissioned to paint the daughter of an aristocrat a few years before. She is summoned to a sparsely populated island off the coast of Brittany, and when she arrives finds that she is but the latest in a succession of artists to have attempted to paint the elusive Héloïse (played by Adèle Haenel).
Héloïse is due to be married off to a wealthy suitor by her mother, but she is restless and full of angst. She only wishes she can reject her mother’s demands, but failing that she has resolved to resist any and all attempts to make her go along with any of the pageantry expected of her before the wedding. The customary portrait prior to the wedding is one such thing that Héloïse completely refuses to agree to, and the last few artists that had been commissioned had to leave the island – their work incomplete – due to her not playing ball.
Her mother wants to try a different approach, with Marianne instructed to introduce herself as a paid companion who will accompany her on daily walks. With Héloïse unawares, Marianne can then study her every detail, making secret sketches of her features whenever she can and committing them to a canvas in the evening. At all times, she must hide her true intentions so that Héloïse doesn’t catch on. In these earlier scenes, the film does such an exquisite job of capturing Marianne’s painter’s-eye view of her subject: tracing her jawline, examining her striking eyebrows. Marianne wrestles both with the difficulty of painting only from memory as well as with her own feelings; as she gets closer to Héloïse she increasingly comes to believe that she is betraying her by painting her without her permission.
There are films that take their time and there is Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The film is a slow-burner if ever there was one, with the drip, drip, drip of tension and withheld emotions collecting on the screen at a near-excruciating pace. Thankfully, there is enough plot movement in the opening half to keep the viewer entranced, wrapped together neatly in immaculate set design, costuming and lighting against the backdrop of the isle’s rugged, lonely coastline. The film is so visually pleasurable, and maybe the historical setting contributes to it greatly but many of the shot compositions look like they’ve been lifted straight from a renaissance painting.
As time goes on, and the nature of Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship begins to shift and become deeply romantic, the film never falters from its pacing or fails to deliver on its promises. I couldn’t possibly write about this film without mentioning just how believable and immersive the acting is on behalf of Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, and I can be prone to exaggeration at times but it truly might be some of the best acting I’ve ever seen on screen. It’s hard to communicate how well-executed every scene is and how viscerally the connection between their two characters is expressed without seeing it first-hand. Even reading through French subtitles their lines are delivered with such delicacy and thoughtfulness that it comes across loud and clear to English-speaking viewers.
This film sat on my watch list for quite some time and looking back I wish I had sought it out sooner because it lands immediately in my list of all-time favourites. I can’t lavish it with enough praise. It hits all the right notes, and I think the confidence it carries for itself means that it never once strays into the territory of coming across as too soppy, not does it shy away from the complex emotions that lie at its very core as a story. What’s more, I think the film is a beautiful and tragic homage to the forbidden relationships of people throughout most of history – lesbian, gay, or otherwise – that were persecuted and had to endure the agony of not being permitted to be freely together. The story’s end is (without giving too much away) a conclusion which is bittersweet and open to interpretation – the hallmark of any great work of art.
Words by Charlie Forbes