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 to paint the portrait of a subject (Adèle Haenel) who does not want to be painted. It’s lovely and atmospheric, and you should definitely see it.
The picture the painter, Marianne, is supposed to paint is essentially the Tinder profile picture of Héloïse. Except it’s not really, of course, because the film takes place in the 18th century, before things like mobile phones, electricity or marrying for love. Héloïse is not interested in marrying some fellow in Italy she doesn’t know – she was 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.
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 finds herself bread and eats. She smokes a pipe. She works out the details of her task with the lady of the house and gets to work. She’s presented as a chaperone to Héloïse, and while she makes sure Héloïse doesn’t run off or try to kill herself, she studies her face she she can put it on paper later.
In Héloïse, she finds a quick-witted companion who challenges and tests her, and slowly grows quite 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, the growing attraction between painter and model, and always in the backdrop the imminent return of the lady of the house.
I wholeheartedly recommend this film. Watch it in French with subtitles and be charmed by the actresses (in fact, 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.