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Movie Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which recently arrived in US movie theaters, have more in common than being on the top of most lists about the best female-directed films in 2019. Both movies deal with the pressure for marriage and, more specifically, with marriage as “an economic proposition” for women, as the young March sister, Amy (Florence Pugh), describes in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel.

In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) travels to a remote French island to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which will be sent to an Italian nobleman in hopes of sealing the marriage arranged by her mother, La Comtesse (played by veteran Italian actress Valeria Golino). Héloïse had been contently living in a convent before being summoned home to fulfill the destiny first designed for her older and recently-deceased sister — an irrelevant replacement in a business-like transaction in which the couple-to-be does not know each other.

The promised bride had already refused to pose for a previous artist, in an attempt to avoid the wedding by preventing the creation of the required “business card.” Marianne is introduced as a companion for the young lady’s walks, and instructed to study and memorize her subject’s face, and paint the marriage portrait in secret. This dynamic transforms the movie into what the director and screenwriter Céline Sciamma calls “a manifesto about the female gaze,” in which painter and subject collaborate to create art together. And in Héloïse and Marianne’s world, the long walks by the sea quietly turn into love and desire.

If Greta Gerwig uses a golden glow to separate the March sisters’ childhood from their adulthood, in its lyric film Sciamma portrays the life of her characters in a mix of light and shadow, which Claire Mathon’s cinematography uses to turn each scene into a painting. Between bright and dark moments, the couple enjoys the days before Marianne’s scheduled departure, sometimes including in their private world and partnership Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), the house’s young maid who is dealing with a female problem of her own.

With few options and little say over their own destiny, Marianne and Héloïse have to accept the “poet’s choice,” as Marianne describes the Greek myth Orpheus, of creating memories that they can keep and cherish for the rest of their lives.

The stories of Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire are separated by almost a century, with the first taking place in US civil-war era and the latter circa 1770. Nevertheless, seen through 21st century’s eyes, the discussions about the role of women in society that inform both films remain surprisingly — and sadly — relevant.

- Lalu Farias


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