Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

Critics Consensus

A singularly rich period piece, Portrait of a Lady on Fire finds stirring, thought-provoking drama within a powerfully acted romance.

98%

TOMATOMETER

Total Count: 214

92%

Audience Score

Verified Ratings: 118
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Movie Info

France, 1760. Marianne is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse, a young woman who has just left the convent. Because she is a reluctant bride-to-be, Marianne arrives under the guise of companionship, observing Héloïse by day and secretly painting her by firelight at night. As the two women orbit one another, intimacy and attraction grow as they share Héloïse's first moments of freedom. Héloïse's portrait soon becomes a collaborative act of and testament to their love.

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News & Interviews for Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

Critic Reviews for Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

All Critics (214) | Top Critics (39) | Fresh (210) | Rotten (4)

Audience Reviews for Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

  • Jan 25, 2020
    As time marches on, fewer and fewer of us remember what life was like before the internet. Those of us who were around back then can attest to the fact that American life was quite a bit more slow-paced. There was still media bombardment, in albeit a subtler way, but one could avoid cultural desensitization and the resultant ennui much more easily if they wished. I suppose one of the biggest differences was that people were naturally a little more physically active and could concentrate for longer amounts of time. Experiences seemed to mean more because every moment and accomplishment wasn't immediately set in the context of a global existence. Maybe it was a little more solipsistic or maybe just unfettered by the full scope of reality. Myopic and fractured as the current socio-political, cultural, or spiritual experience can be today, the Information Age blasted an LED spotlight on every secret garden or Walden and made sure there was a trash can and toilet to accommodate all of the unsanctimonious tourists disrupting the quietude with their camera apps unmuted, and so it seems there aren't so many sacred spaces left to hide in anymore. Perhaps that's why we watch, say, a French period-set romance film like PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE. Something deep in our individual DNA or collective subconscious knows that stillness is good for us. I remember a time long ago when I admonished a friend of mine for excitedly telling me he was going to see the latest TRANSFORMERS flick, he responded by telling me a refrain we've all heard many times before: "I work hard all day, my life is in shambles, and please...for once, FOR ONCE can I PLEASE just go out for a nice night at the movies, buy some popcorn and a coke, and just...shut my brain off? If I could turn back time and ask him some loaded rhetorical questions in response, they would be: Do you practice zen meditation at a D'n'B rave? Do you smoke PCP during a poker match? Do you blow up your house while gardening? As P-Funk used to say, "If you don't like the effects, don't produce the cause." Just take a minute if you have it to imagine the world before television, films, automobiles, and phones. It must have been incredibly boring by you or I's standards, but if humans are exceedingly talented at anything it would be in finding ways to keep ourselves amused. We would probably play card games, make a hallucinogenic poultice, sing, master painting, or fall in love with a member of our own gender. Now just imagine if you were a woman, considered property or soon-to-be property, with absolutely no rights except those afforded by your social status. Imagine how boring life would be, subject to the whims and wills of men who live a city, a country, or a world away from you. Sounds like a decent starting point for a sensuous, existential narrative fiction analysis of the female psyche that transcends ideological bounds and probes the deepest recesses of emotion and aesthetics. It seems so easy to romanticize or fetishize PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE not just because it fits the bill of a meditative work with all of the necessary components needed to wow an audience at Cannes, but because it is a terribly romantic work that fetishizes its own period production, actresses, and philosophical weight. I couldn't and wouldn't look away from the stark, perfectly framed/lit/acted/coded shots of actresses Noémie Merlant (Marianne) and Adèle Haenel (Héloïse) for a second, pathetically wishing I could watch their world far past the film's run time. It seems easy to cynically call the movie another idyllic trip through a progressive past that never occurred, but who need's that noise? I've been fortunate enought to find a small crack in reality where divine light shines through and blights my face with cold excitement. This movie is a portal into a world where books, paintings, modest baroque architecture, and the unstoppable forces of nature converge to give you that stillness that you lack in your day to day life. Marianne and Héloïse, for a brief moment, exist in a microcosm of divine feminine magic where they make the rules and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Yes, they bicker; yes, time is running out for them; yes, life laps them in bounds as they seek meaning and try to latch onto something they don't even know exists yet. This is the horrific beauty of cinematic truth - that the objects, the people, the essences, and the hopes that we fixate upon become ourselves in the quiet course of tragedy. If we weren't guarded by the manic principles of nihilism, we would be overwhelmed with feeling anytime we heard a song. Not in some brobdignagian, nuclear explosion of thought, word, and deed, but in this stillness that our species has forgotten. In the dark flourescent light of you computer screen or phone, open your vocal chords and break the silence of your aching soul, then listen to the beautiful, joyful hush that follows it.
    Steve L Super Reviewer
  • Dec 27, 2019
    Set in 1760 on a remote island, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel) for the purpose of snagging her a husband. Heloise had been planning to become a nun but her family pulled her from the convent once she became their only living daughter, a.k.a. hope for the family to secure prosperity through marriage. Marianne must hide her true intentions and grow close to her subject, memorizing her face enough to paint it in secret. An intimacy builds between the two women that will change both of their lives even long after the fateful painting is finished (spoilers?). Writer/director Celine Sciamma has primarily worked with contemporary stories (Girlhood, Tomboy, Water Lilies) but, in stepping back in time, she has tapped into something elementally beautiful and poignant. It is very much a slow-burn of a movie but, in essence, that is the most relatable form of love, a feeling that builds, transforms, and can eventually consume. There's a liberation for the characters in the time they share together, first as companions and then as lovers. This is a transitory time, one locked in isolation and free from men, though the presence of the patriarchy is unavoidable as it limits their life choices. For Heloise, she had no desire to become someone's wife and then it was no longer her choice. Her greatest value lies in marriage, and a portrait during this era was essentially someone's dating profile picture. It's on Marianne to paint an accurate depiction that can ensnare this woman a husband, which gets even more complicated when Marianne falls for her. The movie tenderly moves along with guarded caution, as two women explore their feelings for one another in a time that didn't care about their feelings. This is a love story that feels alive but also realistic in how it forms and develops. It's about halfway through the movie before the ladies finally make their intentions known. I can understand why this might be too slow for many viewers but the movie never came across as dull for me, and it's because I was so drawn into this world, these characters, and their yearnings being unleashed. When it comes to movies exemplifying the difference in the female gaze, allow Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be one of the prime examples. This is miles away from the crass objectification featured in the likes of Michael Bay's oeuvre and his very explicit definition of sexy. This is a movie where the only nudity casually happens after the sex (and body hair isn't a big deal). There's more ASMR action for the senses (lots of loud lip-smacking sound design) than ogling naked bodies. The emphasis isn't on the contours of lithe feminine forms but more on the emotional and physical impact of a person as a whole. There's one scene that is tremendously affecting and quite sexy, and it begins with the painter telling her subject every small physical response she has studied while painting her. It's little observations that are romantically relayed. The subject then turns around and says, "Who do you think I've been looking at as I've posed for hours?" and proceeds to unfurl her own richly earned romantic observations about her painter's physical responses. It's such a wonderful scene bristling with palpable sexual tension and infatuation, so much more being said in glances than in declarative speeches. The movie also opens up a larger discussion of the male gaze as it pertains to the world of art. They must play into the established conventions driven by a rigid patriarchy designating how women are best represented in media, and the implications to modern cinematic portraits are clearly felt. Funny enough, Heloise is chastised for not smiling enough in her portraits to woo a worthwhile suitor. I assumed this love story wasn't going to have a happy ending given the confines of its era, but I want every reader to know that Portrait of a Lady on Fire just absolutely crushes its ending. You may expect it coming, in a general sense, but the resolution to this love story floored me. There are two consecutive scenes that each elicit different emotions. The first is a winsome feeling of being remembered, of having a sense of permanence after the fact, of a moment in time that will long be fondly recalled and celebrated for its fleeting perfection and lifelong significance. Then the next scene involves a payoff of great empathy that almost brought tears to my eyes. It delivers a long-desired payoff to a character's lifelong request, and the camera simply holds for over a minute while we watch the indescribable impression this woman is experiencing. It's so joyous, so heartfelt, and so luxuriously earned that I felt like my heart was going to burst. The fact that both of these emotional conclusions happen without a single word being uttered is even more impressive. The acting from the leads is phenomenal and the nuances they navigate are so precise and subtle. This isn't a movie about grand gestures and big dialogue exchanges. It's a romance in that genteel fashion of furtive movements and words encased in subtext. We've seen this kind of restrained love story before in other period pieces, as well as gay cinema with its socially forbidden love. The intimacy between these two women must start slow and, like a fire, be given the right amount of oxygen to allow it to spread. There's an understandable bitterness that this love will not be allowed but this cannot abate the desire to proceed anyway. These women are more than just tragic figures coming into one another's orbit. They're fleshed-out and multi-dimensional characters with their own goals and imperfections. They feel like real people, and while disappointed by their limitations within a patriarchy, they will continue to pursue their personal dreams. The portrayal is so empathetic that your heart can't help but ache when it isn't swooning from the sumptuously understated romance of it all. An intimately felt and intimately developed forbidden love that feels natural, nuanced, and enormously engaging. It reminds us that movies only need compelling characters or a compelling scenario to grab us good. I'm fairly certain Bay's music licensing budget was more than this French indie. Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn't a revolutionary movie. We've seen variations on this story before, but what makes it unmissable is the degree of feeling and artistry crammed into every breathable moment. I know there's an ample audience that will enjoy 6 Underground, especially with its wider availability, and that's fine. Netflix paid a pretty penny betting there are enough people looking for the film equivalent of a drunken, disheveled one-night stand. If you're looking for something more authentic, deeply felt, and, let's face it, generous to women, then look for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a beautiful indie romance that warmed my heart, broke it, and then fastened it back together. Nate's Grade: A
    Nate Z Super Reviewer
  • Dec 26, 2019
    Men have been looking at women in films since the very beginnings of mainstream moviemaking, but only in recent decades have we seen the opposite. Of course, queer cinema has very much flipped the script on this notion, making the looks given between the same sexes into a veritable trope of its own. Now with the remarkable, masterful Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, the gaze not only illuminates the seen but the seer as well. With such a deceptively simple premise and very spare dialogue, this gorgeously shot film achieves unforgettable levels of complexity and feelings. Take that, queer tropes! Writer/director Céline Sciamma (Tomboy), sets her film in late 18th century France. Marianne (Noémie Merlant ), a painter, receives a commission from La Comtesse (Rain Man's Valeria Golino). She's hired to create a portrait of La Comtesse's daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel ) to entice an Italian suitor. Héloïse has recently found herself kicked out of a convent for mysterious reasons and now lives at home with her mother and their chambermaid Sophie (Luana Bajrami ). Emotionally frail, Héloïse has also lost a sister to an apparent suicide and refuses to sit for a painting. Marianne must study her subject on their daily walks and paint her secretly at night entirely from memory. Without an incredible filmmaker, this storyline may appear routine, but Sciamma has the visual language skills to create great tension and beauty out of people gazing at each other. An early scene of our two leads walking along an oceanside cliff strikes gold every time Héloïse turns around to notice Marianne studying her. We feel an artist sizing up her subject as much as we feel the sexual attraction beginning to blossom. Sciamma also holds out a stunning surprise later on with regard to those looks. This reveal turns an already beautiful love story into something far more profound. Sciamma also plays with gender identity quite a bit, with Marianne's first pass at the portrait giving Héloïse a more traditionally masculine countenance. Despite her big, billowy skirts, Marianne also leans into more male traits such as her strong jawline and penchant for smoking pipes. Unshaved armpits may have been the norm at the time, but it also enhances Sciamma's premise even more. Throughout the film, we experience the artist's painstaking process, basically tearing up each draft until she captures Héloïse's essence. As their love grows, so do Marianne's skills. In the second act, circumstances leave the pair alone with Sophie, who faces an extreme challenge of her own. Free from the strict rules of society, this trio laughs, drinks, plays games and in a great scene, attend an all-female ritual which leads to the image in the title. The title, however, applies to all three of our heroines, who, when given the chance to be themselves, burn with ferocity. It's a distinctly feminist point of view with the added grace of humanism. A lesser director would have pushed their ideas to the fore more than their characters, but Sciamma clearly understands that the personal is political. We grow to love these women because they refuse to succumb to Hallmark sentiments. Sciamma and her extremely talented cinematographer, Claire Mathon (Stranger By The Lake, another queer classic), favor austerity with occasional bursts of color to establish the film's bleak mood. Much of the movie lives in the gorgeous candle light and stark framing. Characters have been established so well, that when we see our main trio of women walking outside at dusk in exquisite silhouette, we know exactly who is who. Production Designer Thomas Grézaud understands the contained Manor should feel like a prison at times and an oasis at others. The craftsmanship and control of tone reminded me in parts of Michael Haneke's White Ribbon and Jane Campion's The Piano, with a little bit of Bergman's Persona thrown in there for good measure. It's a heady combination, but Sciamma feels ready to play with the other auteurs. All of this comes together to support its stunning cast. While Golino and Bajrami contribute perfectly realized performances, Merlant and Hanel bring their story to aching life. Merlant has the rare ability to allow us to see clear through her icy exterior, and when she finally cracks a smile, we melt along with her. Hanel, who delivered strong work in BPM (Beats Per Minute), has the tough assignment of making us care for this upper class, somewhat charmless woman. One of the great pleasures of the film comes when Héloïse steps more and more into the world of "the help" to discover who she is and what she truly wants. Art, as always, is the great leveler. Of course, true equality for queer people did not exist in the 1700s, so it would feel disingenuous to assign a happy ending here. What we get instead leads to a final shot of such raw emotion and power, we can't help but think of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire as a magnificent work of art.
    Glenn G Super Reviewer

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