Movie Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

17:41 March 23, 2020
By: Alena Cover

February 2020, available on Hulu

In late 1700's France, Marianne (No​émie Merlant)​ takes a boat to an isolated island. She's been commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of a young aristocrat, ​Héloïse (Ad​èle Haenel)​. ​Héloïse​ has been called home from her convent to take her sister's place in marrying a wealthy Italian man after her sister fell--or jumped--from the cliffs near their house. Because she resists the marriage and refuses to sit for her portrait, her mother hires Marianne to pretend to be her walking-companion, commit her face to memory, and paint her portrait after dark. During the day, the two women take walks on the cliffs over the water, and at night, they drink wine, play cards, and read to each other.

The movie takes its time with these scenes and takes pleasure in depicting the intimacy and joy they find in each other's company. Tensions grow as they become closer: Marianne wrestles with her deception of ​Héloïse​, while ​Héloïse​ struggles to interpret Marianne's stares and glances. The result is a spare and compelling romantic drama. The absence of a score makes the two instances of music that ​are ​included more affecting: a piece that Marianne plays for ​Héloïse​ on the piano and an intense choral arrangement around a bonfire. It's worth watching for that last song alone.

The movie is sensitive but unsentimental, and the direct, stripped-down dialogue showcases the standout talent of the two leads.

Sign Up!