The Portrait of a Lady on Fire


On the face of it a classic tragi-romantic tale of forbidden love. The film begins with Marianne teaching a group of young girls to paint in 18th century Paris, one of the girls uncovers a mysterious painting of a young woman standing on a dark beach with the bottom of her dress on fire. The young girl asks Marianne who the picture is, a question which seemingly provokes annoyance, but also deep grief in Marianne. The story then unfolds in flashback. Marianne is a portrait painter, is commissioned to paint the picture of a young aristocratic woman, Heloise, who is promised to a rich man in Milan. Marianne must paint Heloise’s portrait without her knowing that she is doing so. Long brooding scenes unfold on a windswept beach in the north of France. Marianne looks at Heloise, Heloise notices her doing it and scows suspiciously, Marianne hurriedly looks back out to the sea, which continues to crash against the rocks. The drama unfolds often not through dialog, but through a series of glances and flicks of the eye. There is no sound track to the film, except for the waves and the wind, and for long stretches of the film there is also no dialog. We don’t see Heloise break into a smile until past the halfway mark of the film, and when she does she does so with an ever present melancholy.

The notion of gaze plays throughout the film. The focus of the film, a portrait, is meant for the consumption and approval of a male character who we never meet. Our two main characters exchange misconstrued glances at each other on their long walks along the beach. Apart from the very beginning and the end of the film there are no men present, the whole film is carried by the two main female leads and two supporting actresses: the young maid who serves the Heloise and Heloise’s mother. They are all superb. Heloise is cynical and yet has a childlike naivete. Mariane is more worldly.

The film is visually stunning, as is the musicless sound scape. It’s a story about how women look at each other, contrasted with how men see them. It’s also a deeply touching love story.