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Film / Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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"When you don't know what to say, you touch your forehead. When you lose control, you raise your eyebrows...and when you're troubled, you breathe through your mouth."
Héloïse, to Marianne

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (French: Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) is a 2019 French romantic period drama film written and directed by Céline Sciamma, starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel (the latter actress having previously starred in Sciamma's debut film Water Lilies).

In 1770, young painter Marianne (Merlant) is commissioned to paint a portrait of a young woman to be used to elicit marriage proposals. Knowing that the woman, Héloïse (Haenel), has previously refused to sit for portraits as she does not want to be married, Marianne disguises herself as a lady's maid in order to gain her subject's trust only to find herself inadvertently falling in love with her.

Other notable characters include Héloïse's mother, an Italian widow who wishes to go back to Milan and hires Marianne, and Sophie, Héloïse's maid.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire contains examples of the following tropes:

  • All There in the Manual: There is no indication in the film itself to when and where in France does the story take place, other than the ocean and 18th century fashion. Official synopsis says Brittany in 1770.
  • Almost Kiss: The two leads come face to face during one of the painting sessions but nothing happens beyond a Held Gaze.
  • Arranged Marriage: Because her mother wishes to live there, Héloïse will have to marry some wealthy guy in Milan.
  • Artistic License – History: "The Four Seasons", like the rest of Antonio Vivaldi's music, was largely forgotten about after the composer's death in 1741 until his oeuvre underwent a major revival in the 20th century. It would have been an unlikely musical touchstone in the latter half of the 18th century.
  • "Back to Camera" Pose: The film includes a shot where Héloïse looks meditatively out at the ocean in her signature green dress with her back turned to the camera.
  • Beautiful Dreamer: Marianne sketches a sleeping Héloïse at one point.
  • Color-Coded Characters: Up until the end, the characters are consistently symbolized by primary colors. Marianne always wears red during the flashback portion, Héloïse mainly wears blue (then green and white) and Sophie wears yellow. Marianne wears blue in the present day. This is alluded to in the final painting of Marianne, in which Orpheus wears a blue scarf and Eurydice wears white, making clear that the painting is about her relationship with Héloïse.
  • Color Contrast: Due to the above, there is a strong red/blue or red/green contrast between Marianne and Héloïse.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Héloïse is an understated but clear example and gets some cutting lines especially when she's angry or annoyed.
    Marianne: I didn't know you were an art critic.
    Héloïse: I didn't know you were a painter.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: It's established from the very beginning that Marianne and Héloïse don't end up together and that they only have a brief window of time together.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Héloïse can't decide anything about her own life; she has to marry now that her older sister has committed suicide (possibly in order to avoid marriage).
    • Marianne is a female painter who has to pretend to be her father (also a painter) so that her paintings are valued. She is also forbidden from painting naked men.
    • Sophie has to try ridiculous and cumbersome tricks to get rid of her unwanted pregnancy. She ultimately has to go to a local 'faiseuse d'anges' (abortionist healer).
  • Driven to Suicide: It is heavily implied that the death of Héloïse's sister was not an accident but suicide in order to escape her impending Arranged Marriage.
  • Ethereal Choir: The women singing at the bonfire gathering.
  • Ethereal White Dress: Ironically, Héloïse's loose-fitting, vaporous wedding dress evokes death more than marriage. It makes her look like a ghost in Marianne's visions and she is ultimately wearing it when Marianne leaves.
  • Expository Pronoun: Marianne and Héloïse are not social equals, so they address each other with the formal pronoun "vous", even after becoming lovers. There are only two occasions when they use the informal "tu": when Marianne is telling her not to fall asleep on their last night together ("Ne dors pas, ne dors pas..."), and when Héloïse tells Marianne to turn around just before she leaves ("Retourne-toi!").
  • Fauxshadowing: Some emphasis is placed on characters being able/not able to swim which opens up the potential for drama. Early on Marianne displays her Chekhov's Skill of swimming when having to rescue her canvas in the sea. Later Héloïse reveals that she doesn't know if she can swim and then goes for a bath and disappears in the waves. However, nothing comes of it and the scene cuts to Héloïse having returned to the beach.
  • Female Gaze: The main motif of the movie is a woman observing a woman, and gradually falling in love in the process. Céline Sciamma has further acknowledged that this gaze is what drives the movie.
  • Fictional Painting: The portrait of Héloise that Marianne is tasked to paint. Also, the painting of Héloise as a married woman holding a book with a picture of Marianne.
  • Fire/Water Juxtaposition: All over the place. Scenes are often taking place by the ocean under strong but cold daylight or by a fire, usually at night or indoors. One can argue that water symbolizes freedom and the outside world while fire represents intimacy, community and, of course, love.
  • Foreshadowing: The visions of Héloïse in a white dress.
  • Framing Device: The story is framed by showing Marianne some time after the events with her starting to reflect back on what happened.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Averted. Sophie decides to abort her pregnancy, and this is an important moment in building the friendship between the two protagonists and her. Nobody talks about it in a negative manner. Marianne also mentions having an abortion in the past, which is also portrayed neutrally. This explains why she knows various methods for inducing one.
  • Hair-Contrast Duo: The two leads are a brunette and a blonde.
  • Hairy Girl: While in bed with Marianne, Héloïse shows her unshaven armpits a couple times. Marianne was also shown earlier to not shave her pubic hair. Both were standard then (and now) in France.
  • Interclass Friendship: The friendship with Sophie, the servant, goes beyond the class relationship.
  • Intimate Artistry: Love burgeons between Marianne and Héloïse as the former develops a portrait of the latter.
  • Ironic Juxtaposition: It is almost a Birth-Death Juxtaposition. During her abortion, Sophie is lying on a bed where a child and a baby are playing.
  • I Resemble That Remark!: The page quote. Héloïse demonstrates her closeness and intimacy with Marianne by telling her the little things she does to give away her emotions, and Marianne responds by doing exactly what Héloïse describes.
  • Leave the Camera Running: The final shot of Héloïse at the orchestra shaking and crying as she hears the music that reminds her of her lost love.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Héloïse is a proper lady in her appearance and manner per 18th century French standards, who also has an affair with Marianne, the female painter commissioned to do her portrait.
  • Longing Look: Héloïse took Marianne's stealing looks at her for a sign of affection while the latter was actually scouting her for the painting.
  • Love Theme: Vivaldi's Four Seasons (Concerto no. 3, III). First played by Marianne to Héloïse. As explained by Marianne, it mimics the rising violence of a summer storm, mirroring the passion of the two main characters.
  • Loving Details: During one of the painting sessions both Héloïse and Marianne mention little things they observed in the other.
  • Match Cut: At the bonfire, Marianne takes Héloïse's hand after the latter falls due to her dress catching fire. The scene cuts from that to Marianne taking Héloïse's hand again, but this time they're at the beach in the afternoon and Marianne is helping Héloïse climb some rocks.
  • Meaningful Look: All over the place.
  • Minimalist Cast: Doubles as Chromosome Casting. The main story plays out with four female characters.
  • Modesty Bedsheet: Zigzagged. Most of the time, Héloïse covers herself while in bed naked with Marianne. She's shown topless once however.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Marianne is completely nude early on, showing her breasts, and later her pubic mound while lying in bed. Héloïse later appears bare-breasted while in bed with her too.
  • The Muse: Héloïse continues to inspire Marianne's art beyond the portrait the latter was commissioned to create, even way after they have gone their separate ways.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: One of the only two songs featured in the entire movie is the third movement of "Summer" from Vivaldi's Four Seasons. It's featured in two scenes — the first being when Marianne plays a bit of it for Héloïse on the harpsichord, the second being the ending scene, where Marianne witnesses Héloïse being overcome with emotion while experiencing it being played by a full orchestra.
  • Queer Romance: The focus of the film is the same-sex affair between Marianne and Héloïse.
  • Reality Has No Soundtrack: The film has almost no soundtrack to reflect how precious Héloïse finds music in a time period where recordings don't exist and concerts are typically a privilege only enjoyed by the rich. The rare instances of music in the film are all diegetic and very important.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: Marianne and Héloïse kiss, then the film cuts to show them in bed together the next morning. This also happens with their other sexual encounters.
  • Shout-Out: The film pays homage to Orpheus and Eurydice. First, the characters read from the text and discuss it. Later when Marianne leaves the house, Héloïse calls her back and disappears into darkness when Marianne turns around just like what happened in the Greek legend. In the present, we see Marianne standing in front of a painting of hers showing the moment of separation between Orpheus and Eurydice.
  • Source Music: The only three instances of music throughout the movie's runtime are entirely diegetic and very significant: the scene of Marianne playing a bit of "Summer" from Vivaldi's Four Seasons on the harpsichord for Héloïse, the women singing at the bonfire, and the ending scene where Marianne witnesses Héloïse being moved to tears while listening to a full orchestra play "Summer."
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Marianne and Héloïse, both due to Héloïse's impending marriage and them being of the same sex. They are parted in the end.
  • Third-Act Misunderstanding: Héloïse and Marianne have a fallout towards the end of their time together but quickly reconcile.
  • Title Drop: Marianne says it loud at the start, seemingly substituting for showing the title onscreen as is typical. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the name of a painting, by her.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The characters are often talking about memories and oblivion. A few things can't really be happening, so one can guess that the protagonist doesn't remember the facts accurately, and that we are seeing things as she remembers them.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Exists between the two main characters until it gets resolved with a Big Damn Kiss at the cave.
  • Visual Title Drop: We get to see Héloïse with her dress on fire which becomes the inspiration for the painting.