Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Just released in the UK before lockdown, this film is currently streaming on MUBI.

Celine Sciamma’s beautiful, tender love story has to be one of the films of the year – in fact, of this or any other year. Lovingly shot, it progresses at a pace that matches the painstaking efforts of an artist commissioned to paint a portrait such as this, with a similarly breathtaking result.

In 18th century Brittany, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adele Haenel) a young woman who has been brought home from a convent after the death of her sister. It appears she is to replace the sister as bride to a wealthy Milanese, and in those pre-Instagram days the proposed suitor needs a likeness of his proposed bride in order to determine whether to go ahead with the wedding.

You will have surmised that this was also before womens’ rights, too, as Heloise – like her sister before her – has no say in the matter. Her reluctance to be a bride therefore also means a reluctance to pose for the artist, so Marianne arrives under the pretext of being employed as a companion, and has to steal glances at Héloïse by day and secretly paint her portrait while alone in her room at night.

But friendship blossoms, and love follows after. Freed from the constraints of the convent, only to be sent to the constraints of marriage to someone whom she has never met, Heloise has only a brief period to find, and so be, herself. Both women know that their romance cannot last, and the painting becomes more than just a portrait, and remains the enduring symbol of their relationship.

Seldom, if ever, in cinema history have two lovers seemed more perfectly suited to each other than those portrayed here by Merlant and Haenel. Their path to the relationship is natural, unforced and utterly believable. Thanks to them and Sciamma’s perfect direction, what we have here is, crafted with gentle understatement, one of my favourite love stories of all time.

Jim Welsh

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