Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes its name from a painting. You see it early on in the film, which is from Girlhood director Céline Sciamma. Marianne, an art instructor in 18th century France, keeps it in the studio where she teaches young women. When asked about its significance, the film flashes back years prior to a time when she found the inspiration to make the painting and fell in love. And for two hours, you do, too.
There are endless reasons for this. The most readily apparent is the film’s cinematography, which is consistently beautiful. Each frame could conceivably be an inspiration for another portrait with a rich backstory beyond this one. Carefully composed but never flashy in a way that draws attention to itself, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is restrained in a way that never gets old. It’s the kind of movie that makes you feel like a student of cinema, gently encouraging you to notice the entire screen and patient with you even if all you generally have time for is the occasional Marvel movie on an airplane. It wants you to understand it, but it doesn’t want to speak too much.
For a while, hardly any words are spoken. When the flashback begins, Marianne arrives in Brittany at the estate of an aristocratic woman with a problem: her daughter, Héloïse, is engaged to a nobleman, and in a quiet act of protest, she has refused to sit for a portrait that is supposed to accompany her as she is married off. Marianne is commissioned to succeed where a previous artist has failed, under the ruse that she has been hired to accompany Héloïse on walks. Marianne studies Héloïse as she keeps her company and creates her portrait in secret, working from memory.
As they do this, they talk. The conversations in Portrait of a Lady on Fire are among the most memorable people have had on a screen in some time, with each line a stanza in a poem, a reversal, a shift in perspective. With every exchange, the relationship between Marianne and Héloïse changes subtly.
Quiet moments, like when Marianne tells Héloïse that a piece of music is “about a coming storm” are full of soft dread, the kind that comes with the knowledge that love is both inevitable and doomed. A conversation where Marianne attempts to console Héloïse over her pending marriage becomes a moment when the precarity of the painter’s understanding is made plain.
“I’m saying that there will be good things,” Marianne says of Héloïse’s marriage.
“You’re saying that now and then, I will be consoled,” comes the biting reply.
Every word spoken in Portrait of a Lady on Fire means so much because much of it is simply not permitted to be said, even in private. In one of the film’s only subplots, Marianne and Héloïse help a young maid who is not ready to be a mother with an abortion. Few words are exchanged about what must be done because there is little point. The three women understand the stakes, the world that men — who are almost nonexistent in the film — have built for them.
In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, silence is used in the same way negative space is on a canvas. Through portraiture and conversation, Marianne and Héloïse draft and smudge and attempt again to understand one another, to build an accurate representation of the other that they can carry onward despite its impermanence. The answer they come up with makes plain what queer audiences have been quietly telling us forever: that their lives have always been present, even at times where their existence has been vehemently denied. Even in the face of a suffocating culture of repression, there are ways to be seen by one another, even if there aren’t ways to openly exist.
It’s a rare thing to hear a conversation in a movie that makes you sit up a little straighter; it’s even rarer that you hear a silence that does the same. Talk has quite literally never been cheaper than it is now. We communicate freely and carelessly through the abbreviated language of social media and crude meme culture. With this expanse of expression, there has also come a flattening, layers of irony and performance that obscure ourselves from each other.
Perhaps this is why Portrait of a Lady on Fire is such a striking film. It’s a film that is, in part, about the arrogance of presuming to understand someone — first expressed through the one artist’s failed attempt to paint Héloïse’s portrait, and again reasserted by the push and pull of Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship, forged under false pretense and continually reshuffled until the truth becomes a secret that they share, and the lie becomes the unfortunate story they tell the world.
The better portrait isn’t the one that Héloïse’s mother commissions Marianne to make. It’s the one after which the movie is named, the one that never leaves the artist’s studio.