The film follows a young, female artist named Marianne, who is hired to paint a portrait of Héloïse, a retiring socialite who is about to marry a wealthy nobleman. The catch? Héloïse does not know what the portrait is for, and Marianne is forbidden from telling her. The two women grow close over time and eventually, friendship blossoms into something more. Marianne attempts to paint her lover grow more and more halfhearted as the deadline for the portrait approaches.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire opened to critical acclaim last year. The film is meditative and thus, hypnotic. Said tone is interspersed with has sudden bursts of intensity that pull at the viewer’s heartstrings. In particular, the scene where Héloïse plays the harpsichord for Marienne, the music beautifully into the noise of an impending storm. The film, set in the late 18th century against the stark, beautiful background of Brittany, uses its setting to its advantage time and again throughout the film, weaving a compelling love story in between awe-inspiriting shots of the sea.
The most striking scene of the whole film is the titular moment, when Héloïse’s dress catches fire at an evening dance. The camera pans over the singers as the music grows in intensity and then we see Héloïse’s dress catch fire and the music stops and we see Héloïse’s gaze at Marianne to be stronger than the need to put out the fire. It is an incredibly memorable, chilling, and magical moment that conveys Marianne’s obsessive love of Héloïse and the impossible situation they find themselves in.
Overall, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a stunning film and a phenomenal effort by French filmmaker Celine Sciamma. I highly recommend this beautiful film.