Lesbian Period Drama
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (or as the French call it, Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) is a beautiful French film about a painter (Noémie Merlant) who is tasked with painting the portrait of a young woman (Adèle Haenel) who does not want to be painted. It’s a lovely and atmospheric period drama that comes highly recommended.
Marianne, the painter, is supposed to paint what amounts to the Tinder profile picture of Héloïse. Except not really, of course, because the film takes place in the 18th century – before things like mobile phones, electricity or marrying for love were invented.
Héloïse is not interested in marrying some fellow in Italy she doesn’t know . Instead she is happy enough enjoying a quiet life as a nun amongst music and books before an unfortunate event made her the next (and last) in line to be married off. She refuses to sit for any portrait, but Marianne is a professional and will try to paint her anyway.
Two Forceful Women
Marianne is a forceful character. Direct and bold, she makes herself at home in the large, creaking house, secluded on a remote island in Brittany. When she’s hungry, she doesn’t wait to be served – she finds some bread in the house and eats. She smokes a pipe. She does her thing.
She works out the details of her task with the lady of the house and gets to work, as freelancers do. She’s presented as a chaperone to Héloïse, and while she makes sure Héloïse doesn’t run off or try to kill herself, she always studies her face so she can put it on paper later.
Meanwhile, Héloïse has a mind of her own. She’s not submissive, not happy to have a painter in the house, and she makes it known.
A Friendship Blossoms
In Héloïse, Marianne finds a quick-witted companion who challenges and tests her, and slowly grows fond of her. When the lady of the house (Héloïse’s mother) leaves for a few days, their friendship is free to truly blossom.
They share the house with only the maid, Sophie, and an easy companionship settles between the three women. There’s also a darkness, a problem they need to take care off, some haunting scenes on the beach. Yet, the attraction between painter and model grows, always threatened by the imminent return of the lady of the house.
A Masterpiece Of Lesbian Proportions
I wholeheartedly recommend this film. Watch it in French with subtitles and be charmed by the actresses (men hardly appear in this film at all). Enjoy the windy weather of Brittany and find out what’s on fire here, the portrait or the lady.