We continue Mental May with possibly the most stunning movie I’ve ever seen. I’m honestly a little worried about how I’ll talk about it, it’s just so… perfect. I’m thinking maybe we should just quit the month on a high and start again in June.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
On an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the eighteenth century, a female painter is obliged to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman.
Héloïse: When you’re observing me, who do you think I’m observing?
Marianne (Merlant) is teaching a group of young girls how to paint. One of them uncovers a painting in storage and is prompted to ask her about it when she seems perturbed to see it. The painting is called… well you guessed it: Portrait de la jeune fille en feu.
The story of the painting soon unravels in flashback. Marianne arrives on a small beautiful island by boat, having been commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of the lady of the house. She arrives late, after jumping into the sea to rescue her tools, which fall overboard. Marianne warms up in front of the fire that evening and later questions the maid Sophie (Bajrami) about her young mistress, who has only arrived home in the last few weeks. Her sister has died and Héloise (Haenel) – the lady – has been brought back from the convent to marry a Milanese nobleman, her late sister’s betrothed.
There’s a story there, about the sister and Marianne soon gets it out of the maid that she’d jumped to her death. Héloise’s mother (Valeria Golino) tells her that although she’s there to paint, she’ll have to do it from memory as her daughter has already been through one artist – and refuses to pose. Héloise instead thinks she’s there as a companion to join her on long walks.
La Comtesse: He never saw her face.
Marianne: Why won’t she be painted?
La Comtesse: She refuses this marriage.
So the women walk and they look at each other, Marianne to study her subject for later rendition. Héloise ponders whether or not she can swim. They talk a bit. Marianne asks her if she thinks her sister wanted to die, Héloise says she does. That she was sorry for leaving her sister to the fate she killed herself to get away from. Gradually a friendship is born and the painting is finished.
Unwilling to betray her new pal, Marianne tells her the truth about her being there – and shows her the painting. Héloise criticises it and Marianne spoils it on purpose, much to La Comtesse’s chagrin. She’s almost fired but Héloise agrees to sit this time, much to her mother’s surprise. She agrees to let Marianne start again, while she’s away in Italy. She goes for five days, leaving the women with just Sophie for company.
In the most dreamy scene, Héloise reads the story of Orpheus and Eurydice to her friends and they all debate the true reason Orpheus turned around to look at his wife, thus sending her back into the underworld for all eternity.
Sophie, it turns out is pregnant and, not wanting to have the baby, the new friends first try to help her miscarry – and later have an abortion. She takes them to a bonfire gathering where a bunch of women stand around singing and Héloise’s skirt catches fire. The next day the women kiss for the first time in an impossibly picturesque cave but Héloise freaks out and runs away.
She comes round and after admitting how scared she is, the women make love (or fuck. They fuck). Things are blissful for a time but as the day of La Comtesse’s return draws nearer – and with it, the end of the assignment and Héloise’s impending/unwanted nuptials. Marianne is haunted by a vision of her lover in her wedding dress.
On the last day Marianne presents the finished painting – and also whips up two mini portraits to remember each other by. On page 28 of a book she’s lent to Héloise, she paints a nude of herself but like a tasteful one.
Something’s got to give because they can’t stay like this forever, unfortunately.
Héloïse: In solitude, I felt the liberty you spoke of. But I also felt your absence.
Everything about this movie is wonderful. The setting, the framing of certain shots, the colour palette. The performances are utterly flawless and all three central characters are played to perfection. I also loved Sophie and her dynamic with the women. Her abortion scene is so moving (and utterly insensitive tbh, as it occurs on a bed that has children in it). This movie destroyed me at the end, I’m not going to lie – and, that scene, despite its subject matter, is respectfully handled and full of hope.
And the end end – my God. I’m giving nothing away but the slow build up of the relationship between Marianne and Héloise is sublime, it’s so well paced and I really didn’t want it to end but the ending was beautiful.
I also have to say that I really respected the women on the island, the ones at the bonfire. They give off such deliciously witchy vibes and I am here for it 100%. Also, I can see myself living quite happily there myself, as long as I had plenty of books.
Marianne: When you asked if I had known love. I could tell the answer was yes. And that it was now.
Héloïse: I remember.