By Keith Lim
Lesbian historical romance films are quickly becoming a genre of its own. Ammonite (2020), The Favourite (2018), and The World to Come (2020), just to name a few, have all garnered critical praise — and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, released in 2019, is no different. The film handles the subject of womanhood with nuance and honesty. Unsurprisingly, it won the Best Screenplay Award at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a French film set in the 18th century — artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is tasked to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) for Héloïse’s husband-to-be. The task seems easy at first until Marianne learns that Héloïse has previously refused to pose for another painter due to her reluctance to be married off. Not wanting to face the same issue, Marianne resorts to memorising parts of Héloïse and painting her in secret. This arrangement eventually leads to romance.
From the get-go, the male gaze is almost non-existent throughout the film. The film has no central male characters, passes the Bechdel Test (this assesses female representation in fiction, where at least two female characters are featured and talk to each other about something other than a man), and even the director is female (Céline Sciamma). Instead, something else replaces the male gaze — patriarchy. The characters’ only ‘enemy’ is society; its presence a constant in their lives.
As an artist, Marianne has the freedom to live her own life, while Héloïse, bound by tradition, is forced to marry a man she has never met before. At first glance, Marianne seems to have skirted societal norms, but this is later debunked. Womanhood, especially in the 18th century, is not something that brings freedom.
Both characters find solace in the taboo despite living in a man’s world. Ironically, their forbidden romance is far more genuine than the marriage imposed on Héloïse.
However, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is more than just a pro-homosexual or pro-equality romance story. It is, at its core, a love letter to womanhood. It shows female nudity as vulnerability and strength, rejecting the male gaze by presenting the natural female body — including body hair — and excluding male-oriented gratification scenes.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire also explores pregnancy, childrearing, and abortion. Instead of criticising a woman’s traditional role, it acknowledges every female as an individual, and that conservative roles may be desirable for some. The film strikes a balance in displaying female empowerment — regardless of a woman’s decision to adhere to tradition or resist it — it is her choice, and that is what ultimately matters.
To call Portrait of a Lady on Fire a good film is an injustice; it is a masterful rendition of everything womanly. The acting is delightful, and the score captures the characters’ emotions. With memorable shots of friendship, romance, and female solitude, the film portrays the tragedy of what a woman sees in a man’s world.
Still, no movie is flawless, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire suffers from pacing issues. Interactions between Héloïse, Marianne, and the third character Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) — a pregnant maid who serves the two main characters — are sometimes monotonous, taking far too long to make a point. However, this makes no more than a dent in the film’s overall greatness.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is filmmaking at its best; I rate it a solid 4.5/5. Furthermore, it is relevant in Singapore where regressive views still exist. This film challenges such perspectives in a meaningful way and hence, I implore you to watch this movie. If you are interested, you can rent the movie online from The Projector, where it costs $10 for a 48-hour rental. Overall, Portrait of a Lady on Fire conveys an important message — that women, too, are individuals — something this world forgets too often.