Portrait of a Lady on Fire Is a Beautiful Slow Burn

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a visually stunning film about a lesbian romance in 18th century France. The central relationship in the film is between Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter, and her subject Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Marianne has been commissioned by Héloïse’s mother to paint a wedding portrait for Héloïse before she is sent off to be married. A former nun, Héloïse has no desire to be married, and therefore she is resistant to having her portrait painted. The relationship between Marianne and Héloïse builds slowly, with tension growing as the two become closer to one another through the process of Marianne’s painting.

Their romance is short-lived, lasting only a few days while Héloïse’s mother is away on a trip. Although the romantic moments between the two are concentrated in the second half of the film, they dominate the story. Tragically, the couple is torn apart by Héloïse’s marriage, but the two still hold a flame for one another years after they part.

Greek mythology nerds will recognize the film’s allusions to the tragic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus heads to the underworld in order to rescue his deceased wife Eurydice, and he ends up losing her forever because he disobeys Hades and turns around to look at Eurydice as they are exiting the underworld. Marianne and Héloïse discuss the myth and Orpheus’s reasons for turning around to look at his wife. Marianne argues that Orpheus made “the poet’s choice,” choosing to look back at her and preserve his memory of her. Héloïse suggests that perhaps Eurydice asked him to turn around. Towards the end of the film, the women parallel this myth during their parting, and Marianne preserves the memory of their romance by painting about the myth.

Although Portrait of a Lady on Fire centers around a lesbian romance, it is more than a romance story. Female director Céline Sciamma has given us a story that highlights the variety of struggles women face and the ways that our shared struggles bring us together, whether that is the marriages our foremothers were forced into in order to survive, or the process of unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Women and our relationships with each other, whether romantic or otherwise, drive the story.

Men have very little screen-time in the movie; there are no male characters with names and there are only a few lines of dialogue spoken by male characters throughout the entire film. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is female-centric, which is a welcome break in a world where we are flooded with narratives surrounding men.

To put it simply, the film is beautiful. Actors Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel portray realistic desire for one another, and the sexual scenes between them are free from the unrealistic, male-gazey tone that troubles some lesbian films. The film won Best Screenplay at Cannes Film Festival, and I cannot say that I am surprised; it deserved the win.

The world always needs more lesbian stories. Watching lesbian movies was helpful in my coming-out process because they helped me see that lesbian romance is not only normal, but it is attainable. Although the story is ultimately tragic, a common problem for lesbian movies, it was a beautiful journey of budding love between women. Portrait of a Lady on Fire enters theaters just in time for Valentine’s Day, a perfect time to watch a movie about love between women.