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Adèle Haenel plays Héloïse and Noémie Merlant plays Marianne in "Portrait of a Lady on Fire." Photo courtesy of IMDb.

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is a landmark of sapphic cinema

Released in 2019, Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire'' made waves during awards season, quickly achieving superstar status among crowds of cinephiles. With all of the hype that surrounded the film, it can be easy to forget just why the film has made a name as a queer cinematic classic.

For the uninitiated, the film follows an artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), commissioned for a particularly difficult wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who is set to marry a Milanese nobleman she has never met. Prior to the movie, Héloïse had already exhausted one painter  by refusing to pose, so Marianne must paint her in secret; romance ensues.

Looking at the film within the context of Sciamma’s broader filmography, it serves as a sort of anomaly; among a collection of reserved, current-day coming-of-age explorations of gender and sexual identity, we find a searing period-piece romance. Lucky for the viewer, the film never feels like something that would fall outside of Sciamma’s wheelhouse, retaining much of her typical subject matter and her lyrical, empathetic filmmaking style.

This cohesion in style is achieved through the film’s relatively dialogue-scarce screenplay, something that those familiar with Sciamma will find to be consistent from her other works. Instead of drowning the viewer with long, drawn-out monologues in 18th-century English, Sciamma centers our focus to the lovers’ gazes, encouraging the audience to engage with the actors in this continual dueling staring contest.

Sciamma deftly analyzes the complex, muddy relationship between love and duty that historically existed and continues to exist for women to this day. All of the ladies in this film are bound by expectations which constantly stand in the way of desire, and they similarly have their duties sullied and complicated by the universal human longing for love and connection.

This messy relationship between desire and expectation is driven home through the central plot of Héloïse and Marianne and the parallel plot of housemaid Sophie’s (Luàna Bajrami) quest for an abortion. Sciamma presents the audience with a barrage of evidence that women are also driven by desire and passion in a way typically only allocated to men, but she also points out that women are disproportionately suppressed and castigated when they manage to find ways to show it.

The romance itself is tender and precise in its development. I found Sciamma’s play on the typically tragic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to be bittersweet and delightful. The power of the gaze is central to both tales, but in this story, Marianne’s gaze upon her lover brings strength to the relationship rather than being its downfall. While the pair are ultimately tragically fated due to societal convention, they can always share their memories and their mutual adoration.

The cinematography brilliantly serves to emphasize the gazes between the two main characters. In the scene where Héloïse nearly interrupts Marianne working on her secret portrait, the camera tracks Marianne rushing to take off her painting apron and hide any evidence of what she was working on. As Marianne comes back around the curtain in her room, though, both Marianne and the camera come to a dramatic halt. We then hard-cut to Héloïse sitting in the middle of the room on a stool, almost perfectly posing for a portrait, looking directly into the camera and at the viewer.

Color also serves an interesting role in the film. Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon opt to fill their backdrops with various shades of blue to contrast the orange candlelight often cast upon the actors’ faces. It’s a subtle way to hint at a conflict between our characters and their environment. 

Marianne almost exclusively wears a red dress throughout the film, with Héloïse switching between a green dress while posing for her portrait and a dark blue dress for most other substantive scenes. The green and red directly contrast with each other, suggesting an opposition between the two as painter and subject (something also emphasized through the plot, as Héloïse initially refuses to pose for the portrait). The complimentary colors of blue and red, though, suggest a companionship outside of the relationship between painter and subject, one that Marianne seems to be coming to terms with throughout the film.

Something important to note is how Sciamma is able to achieve this bittersweet romance without exploiting queer trauma; this movie celebrates the romance between the women, rather than framing their attraction to each other as an obstacle in itself. More directors should gaze upon the story that Sciamma has crafted with this film in order to further advance positive queer representation in cinema.

Zara Roy is the copy chief at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at or on Twitter @zarazzledazzle

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John Scott is the editor-in-chief at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at or on Twitter @JScott050901

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