Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Words by Hiba Akmal
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Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

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In late 18th century France, a female artist - Marianne, is summoned from the city to the stormy and isolated peninsula of Brittany to paint a portrait for a girl betrothed to a Milanese suitor. Unbeknownst to Marianne, this is the second time a painter has been summoned to depict the recalcitrant subject, and the second daughter of hers to be promised to the overseas gentleman.
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French director Céline Sciamma says her film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a “manifesto about the female gaze”. I argue it is that and so much more. Brought to life by the impeccable performances of Adèle Haenel, Noémie Merlant and Luàna Bajrami, POLOF is an elegiac portrait of female desire, female solidarity and female resilience in a man’s world. Men feature scarcely in the film. In fact, the entirety of the primary narrative (bar the end reflections) permits the intrusion of just a single male character, appearing briefly to fetch the completed portrait for delivery. In contrast to this physical absence, the effect of male dominance is felt throughout the film, it’s consequences are what shape the plot and stir the emotional depth of its central romance.


In late 18th century France, A dame-aristocrat summons a female artist - Marianne from the city to the stormy and isolated peninsula of Brittany to paint a portrait, her daughter - Heloise- for a Milanese suitor to whom she is betrothed. Unbeknownst to Marianne, this is the second time a painter has been summoned to depict the recalcitrant subject, and the second daughter of hers to be promised to the overseas gentleman. The first threw herself off the peninsula cliff in defiance of this arrangement.


Marriane, therefore, is to pose as her walking companion, and in secret complete the task of committing her image to canvas. It is in this context that a beautiful but burdened romance beorgeons between the two elicited at first through the studious gaze of the painter and her subject and then erupting in unbridled effusive romance.


The film has garnered wide praise for its costume and wardrobe. Rather than lavishing its cast in the array of extravagant ensembles we typically enjoy in period dramas (ahem Kiera Knightly) POLOF assigns each character just one or two simple but bold and significant pieces. Costume designer, Dorothée Guiraud took inspiration from 17th-18th century French paintings whose feel, pigments and moods she imbued into the attire of the film evoking a wistful nostalgia of this bygone era.


Heloise’ Emerald green dress, is the sartorial centrepiece of the film. Its fabric, stiff and cascading at once, luxuriously creasing around the bends of Héloïse’s body is carved stroke by stroke into Marianne’s canvas. But

Guiraud relays that it is deliberately bereft of embellishments typical to the period, even expected of the aristocratic class to which Héloïse belongs. Perhaps this is to heighten the focus on the model of the portrait. Marraine’s dress, in contrast, is a more practical, relaxed fabric, warm and rusted in colour offering a vivid contrast both in colour and structure with the blazing green of Héloïse’s dress.


The film both exhibits and defies the male order of the world the women are living in. When Héloïse’s mother leaves for Milan, a warm feminine utopia is formed where the social and gender roles of the house give way as a kind of egaliarian, queer paradise plays out. Marianne and Héloïse’s romance advances from furtive glances to professed and consummated passion, and together with Sophia, the house-help they form a warm and genuine friendship. The girls dine together, drink wine together and support Sophia in seeking out an abortion for her unwanted pregnancy. Yet another reminder of patriarchy’s unfettered reign in their lives.

As beautiful as the fulfilment of Héloïse and Marianne’s romance is, it cannot last and this inevitably haunts the film throughout. The utopia is an ephemeral enactment of a universe in which women’s livelihoods are not tied to male providence, where the possibility of Marianne and Heloise is not erased by the realities of social laws.


The harsh backdrop of Brittany’s rocky shores, bleak skies and roaring ocean bottles this futility and is reminiscent of the stormy moors that encircled Catherine and Heathcliff’s in the Wuthering Heights. Another romance punished for its defection from social custom, that of race and class. Marrianne and Héloïse’s romance echoes this loss. In POLOF, The tragedy of denial poignantly reinforces the strictures of a heteronormative, masculine world in which Heloise’ and Naomi’s love was a forbidden deviation from the start.

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