If there’s any lesson I hope you learn from this blog, it’s that I am always on board for a period drama. Although our theme on the Blog Collab this month is mental health, we’re rolling along with a questionably related French lesbian period drama. Not going to lie–I just really wanted to watch this film regardless of theme since I missed it in theaters.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
After being commissioned to secretly paint a wedding portrait of a young woman, artist Marianne finds herself conflicted when she develops romantic feelings for her subject.
Marianne is a drawing teacher in late 1700s France, remaining aloof as she pushes her students to do their best. It’s clear there are feelings bubbling beneath her cool exterior when she spots one of her paintings on display in the classroom. This particular painting, the titular Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was painted a long time ago yet maintains a powerful pull on Marianne. So let’s journey back a long time ago, shall we?
After arriving on a stunningly gorgeous island off the coast of France, art supplies in tow, it’s clear Marianne has her work cut out for her with a new portrait commission. Not only is the large estate rather empty and ominous in all of the best ways we’d expect from a Gothic-tinged period drama, but the subject of her portrait, Héloïse, will likely be less than cooperative.
After smoking a pipe in the nude (for real), Marianne gets her night cheese on, gathering all of the gossip she can from maid Sophie. As it turns out, Héloïse has only recently returned home after spending much of her life in a convent. After the unexpected death of her sister, Héloïse will inherit her life plan, marrying the Milanese gentleman intended for her sister. Sophie reveals that Héloïse’s sister did not die by accident–rather, her death was a suicide.
Now that Héloïse will marry, her mother has commissioned a wedding portrait to mark the occasion. However, Héloïse destroyed the painting created by the previous artist and absolutely refuses to sit for another portrait. As a result, Marianne will have to be sneaky, posing as a walking companion for Héloïse, who has not been allowed to leave the house since her sister’s death. Any portrait work Marianne completes will be done in secret in only a week.
To make things even more complicated, Héloïse is incredibly gorgeous and full of life, so Marianne is almost immediately attracted to her. As a single woman who makes her living as an artist, Marianne enjoys a level of freedom Héloïse can only dream of, introducing her to music she’s never heard before and giving her an idea of what life in Milan might be like. As the two bond, Marianne feels increasingly guilty about her deception. When the portrait is complete, she decides Héloïse will hear the truth from her.
After the portrait is unveiled, Marianne destroys it before Héloïse’s mother can see it, claiming it isn’t good enough. And, while it was perhaps accurate, Marianne does feel it fails to capture the truth of Héloïse’s nature. Though extremely aggravated, Héloïse’s mother agrees that Marianne can repaint the portrait, especially when Héloïse declares that she will cooperate fully by sitting to pose. Héloïse’s mother will be away for five days, after which she expects to see results.
Left to their own devices, Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie create their own little utopia free from men and any sort of authority figures. They cook together, come up with a solution to Sophie’s troubles together, and discuss the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice together. And Marianne and Héloïse spend a lot of time casting intense looks at each other. We get a glimpse at the inspiration for the titular portrait of a lady on fire. However, in true Gothic fashion, Marianne is haunted by a ghostly vision of Héloïse in a wedding dress.
What will happen when the portrait is complete and Héloïse’s mother returns home?
4.5/5 Pink Panther Heads
*Swoon.* This film is absolutely stunning from just about every angle. First of all, the cinematography is gorgeous, capturing the incredible scenery, costumes, and sets. It’s impossible not to feel instantly transported right into the story as it unfolds so delicately and deliberately.
It’s no secret that I love a period drama, and this one is so lovely. The lingering looks, the graceful (if extremely uncomfortable) fashions, the eerie visions late at night! All of this plus a lesbian romance, feminist themes, and commentary about class status, and I’m in love even though this film broke my heart.
I adore how real the characters feel, and what a unique character Marianne is. Though I haven’t given her much attention in my review, Sophie, the maid, is quite incredible too. Despite being part of a class meant to lead a nameless, faceless existence, Sophie is her own person. She is observant and compassionate, while her pregnancy highlights the vulnerability of her position. Just quit, men. Quit it.
As a great period drama should, this film simultaneously makes me want to live in the exact setting while also being so grateful for not living in an earlier time than our own (though it’s a reminder of how far we have to go for women’s and LGBTQ rights). The circumstances for women at the time are pretty bleak, and it’s heartbreaking that the love and freedom Marianne and Héloïse find doesn’t last. But the film manages to celebrate what these characters achieve without pity; it’s miraculous they carved out space for themselves at all, even if it was a tiny amount for a short time. That being said, I dare you to watch this and tell me the ending didn’t destroy you emotionally.