Portrait of a lady on fire

I saw Portrait of a Lady on fire back in November in Goa Film festival. It was my best film of the year and the best of all I saw in IFFI 2019. Since then have been recommending it to my circle of movie buffs.  Its is a very simple story which tries to bring out modern feministic ideas in a 18 century backdrop. A painter – Marianne is employed to paint a portrait of a young lad – Héloïse who is about to get married, the challenge is that she is reluctant to pose and Marianne has to observe her secretly and paint her without her knowledge. In due course of time they both fall in love and it has its own tragic yet memorable ending. The film’s line may seem really simple but there are lot of metaphors and in depth meaning to it.

The film is one beautiful and gem of  representation of Women in Art and Culture of Europe. The film was directed by Celine Scamia. The film has very minimum artists and you really cant take away your eyes from looking at them.  Noémie Merlant And  Adèle Haenel have given the best performance. Every time Heliose (Adele) looks at her, her  eyes are so intense. Adele’s sharp looks are mesmerising. The film has been beautifully captured by Clarie Mathon.  Every frame seems to be a painting. I was badly waiting for the  film to come out in any streaming platform, that I can analyse the Cinematography and look at the patterns in the film. I finally saw it in MUBI a couple of days back again.

Fire as an element :

Major part of the film happens indoors and Cinematography is very well attributed with the Interiors of the film. In-fact if you look into the production design and  notice the backdrops you can get an idea how simple and minimal the background is. Its the lighting majorly a candle light and fire source based lighting that brings the essence of the cinematography in the film. The director has used Fire as an element throughout the film. Many Important scenes are  lit with a fire based source of light .


There are two particular instance where the director has beautifully used fire as a metaphor one when she burns the faceless portrait – At this point the artist thinks she has completed the portrait and a kind of feels contented of her work un-till she gets a review from Heliose next day questioning is it really her. It was really a hard hit on Marianne when Heliose says she is  not bothered about the painting but what saddens her is that this is how Marianne looks at her. This is the point where Marianne really starts looking at her.

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The second time when she sees Heliose in-between the fire was during the festive, she appears to be smiling but just like a mirage her happiness is vanished. The places where Heliose smiles in the film is very little. May be this is one main reason that gave a strong impact and the viewers could feel the pain on their tragic end. Adele has beautifully carried this scene. Looking at her was full of pain!


A Change of Perspectives :

There are huge differences between how she draws her first portrait and the second. The first was more of a mechanical process but while drawing the second portrait she not just draws only that but she sketches and paints her at few more instances. Marianne not just paints her when she was painting the second portrait. She  starts getting into her, she was indulging into her rather than just looking at her. I was able to notice a deep difference between the two, the second has captured the intense look of Heliose with intricate details of her face.


I noticed a sequence of shots where the DOP  has beautifully placed Marianne completely juxtaposed against her paintings. The very first shot of Marianne looking at her faceless painting was one such shot where Heliose’s faceless body is just onto Marianne while she is looking at it. The second time is when she completes her first painting and when the third time a similar shot just appears while Marianne looks at her and the love blooms soon after it.



I really loved the way the canvas and its progress was pictured. It was just a tight close of the canvas with just a hand in it. Its just the POV of a painter. The very first shot begins with just a white stroke on a blank canvas. In fact art begins that way ain’t it! I really loved the space where the film speaks beyond the POV of the painter. Heliose tells Marianne at one point while posing for her that both of them are in the same place doing the same. She asks to come to her  place and have a look . “You are looking at me and am looking at you!” is what Heliose says. Cinematographer – Clarie Mathon has played this scene so beautifully – Marianne is showed only in close ups while she is painting throughout the film its only when Heliose tells her that both of them are in same place Marianne is revealed in a wide shot in Heliose POV. Its the only shot where Marianne paints in a wide angle. Though her angle is wide the details Heliose has noted is so close and she tells the most intricate details of Marianne.

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Sequence of drawing First Portrait Vs the Second Portrait :


Comparison of the 3 Portraits :


Comparison of Paintings with  Live Actions :

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Clarie Mathon has beautifully maintained a symmetry throughout the shots of Heliose and Marianne Together. She has perfectly balanced and maintained a similar composition throughout the film.

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Female Gaze to call out the Patriarchy :

I really love the way how the director Celine Scamia has used a female gaze to depict the story in a far different perspective. There is neither men nor the characters speak about men in any part of the film, but existence of men and the patriarchal world is felt throughout the film.  There is a deep sequence where the maid – Sophie  has to undergo an abortion and its only women who support her in such difficult time. They dont even discuss on who is the father . The scene has a gripping sequence where the abortion is being done with a kid aside and amidst the pain of abortion a motherhood blooms. While seeing this sequence I  felt  like Scammia wants to tell the world that women’s pain can never be understood in a patriarchal world.  She has literally created a  female world to call out  how suppressive the patriarchal society is for women.


There were a couple of scenes where the film describes how women and their artistic abilities were suppressed – Marianne once tells Heliose that how women are not allowed to work on male nudes. Heliose questions ” if it is an act of modesty” and Marianne replies ” thats how men restrict us from making good art but I do it secretly”.  In another instance Marianne is presenting one of her paintings in an exhibition and a random person approaches her and comments on the painting attributing it as her father’s work – she explains him that it was her work and she has to submit it on her father’s name. This was one  casual  portrayal of how female abilities were suppressed back in time.


Artist Behind the Portraits :

Painter Helene Delmaire drew all the portraits and paintings  that appear in the film except the faceless painting of Heliose. She has given an interview where she has said how Adele is an actor and not really a poser. She explained that how hard it was for her to sit still and she couldn’t do it at all. The artist has painted numerous portraits for various takes. She has shared the progress and backend sketching works behind Portrait of a Lady on fire painting in her Insta Handle.


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Metaphors of  Orpheus and Eurydice Mythology :

The Love story of Orpheus and Eurydice is adapted in the film’s as a metaphor to their Love. In-fact the characters read about this Mythological story and discuss about it and  Marianne starts seeing Heliose like Eurydice in her vision. Like Eurydice who is also embodied in White Costumes  in her representation Heliose is also seen in a pure White Dress. Am attaching a Short Video to know about Orpheus and Eurydice Mythology.



When Heliose, Marianne and Sophie discuss about Orpheus and Eurydice – “Why did Orpheus turned back and look at Eurydice” was a subject of discussion. Each of them had their own opinions about it – Marianne tells that  ” he chooses the memory of her thats why he turns ” and Heliose thinks about it and replies ” its perhaps she was the one who  asked  for turn around”. Towards the Pre climax  when Marianne is about to leave she sees Heliose exactly the same way how she looked at her like Eurydice in her vision. After a final kiss she runs out without turning back or looking at her. It was Heliose who calls her saying ” Turn Around” and Marianne Turns around to look at her and chooses a memory of her. Later Marianne sees her twice and both the time she looks at Heliose with a memory of her !



I am a Passionate Traveller, Photographer and Film Maker. I feel Literature and Arts are the essence of life and I go by the verse "I Read, I Travel, I Become". Join my site for my Tales and Travels.