Portrait tells the tale, rather, witnesses the unfolding of a delicate love between Marianne, an 18th century French female artist of some renown, and Héloïse, a young noblewoman and the eponymous Lady on Fire. Complex emotions, turbulent and quiet in turns, underpin the film’s deceptively simple premise.
Héloïse's mother, the Countess, has called her away from the convent, and a life within which she had created a semblance of freedom, to wed a Milanese nobleman in her deceased sister’s stead. As a picture is worth a thousand words (and more) in our Modern Times of the Tinder, so too it was during the 18th century in Europe. Héloïse, at her mother's behest, must pose for a portrait. At the beginning of the film, an artist has already failed in the endeavour due to Héloïse's denial to pose. Acting out of desperation, the Countess hires Marianne to adopt the guise of Héloïse’s walking companion and paint her through pretextual observation. Marianne must observe the lines, form, and colours of her future lover from a distance, and commit her observations first to memory, and then to canvas — in a covert dance of intimacy.
Female artists are not an aberration in Marianne's time. According to the Met, "women ranked among the most sought-after artists in Paris in the 1780s", benefitting from the patronage of royal women and Salon-showings. She has taken on her father's trade, chosen to be unmarried, borne an abortion, and smokes a pipe. On the other hand, Héloïse is ‘not sad, but angry’ as she contends with the fact of her sister's suicide and in its wake, her own loss of control over her fate. Under the watchful gaze of the Countess, a friendship blossoms. With the destruction of self, as Marianne destroys the first portrait and Héloïse, in reciprocation, agrees to pose for the second, they start a fire for two. Like Orpheus and Eurydice — a recurring metaphor in the film, they try to put it out, twice, but the burning survives their lives.
Although Héloïse and Marianne's love story is the cinematic core of Portrait, the film, more than the sum of its parts, weaves a deft narrative of the lives of women, their desires, and travails. In one of her interviews, Céline Sciamma says, “I wanted to use the tools of cinema so you would feel patriarchy without actually having to embody it with an antagonist." From the subversion of the kitchen as a physical space to the makeshift abortion, its reenactment and deployment as the subject of Marianne's sketch (executed with the excitement of young girls camping indoors on a thunderous night), the filmmaker achieves her vision with finesse. Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire charms, bewilders, soothes, and ultimately emancipates.