December 16, 2019 – Marianne (played by Noémie Merlant) while teaching a painting class, is asked by a student about a painting of hers showing a woman on the seashore with a bright streak of color. She calls it “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” An abrupt flashback shows Marianne holding onto a large wooden crate in a rowboat heading through rough waves to a French island off the coast of Brittany. Somehow, the crate falls overboard. She jumps in after it and retrieves it.
It turns out that Marianne has been hired to paint a portrait of a difficult young woman, Héloïse (played by Adèle Haenel). The portrait will be used to entice a nobleman in Milan to marry the beautiful Héloïse. She does not want to be married, and refuses to sit for a portrait. Héloïse's mother, a countess (Valeria Golino) asks Marianne to accompany Héloïse, observe her closely and paint her portrait without Héloïse's knowledge.
Héloïse is instructed to take walks along the island, always accompanied by Marianne, who observes her closely, sometimes furtively drawing sketches. It turns out that the rescued wooden crate held painting canvases and frames, which is why Marianne risked an ocean swim to save them.
As Marianne continues to gaze at Héloïse, and she gazes back, it quickly becomes clear these two women are attracted to each other, and that it is only a matter of time before they make out, but this takes quite a bit of time. A servant woman, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) living at the remote house on the island, responding to Marianne's questions, reveals that Héloïse's sister committed suicide on the island.
Surprising developments delay Marianne's departure from the island. Héloïse's mother leaves the island for a short trip, insisting that the portrait be finished by the time she returns. This leaves the three women alone in the house. Héloïse and Marianne accompany Sophie into town. Sophie is pregnant, and gets an abortion from a local woman, witnessed by Héloïse and Marianne.
Marianne and Héloïse become lovers. Their options are limited, given the times they live in (the story is set in the late 18th century). Emotions run high as they face the imminent return of Héloïse's mother, and Héloïse's obligations to her family, such as her mother's desire (and possibly financial need) for her to marry into Italian nobility.
Despite the class differences between Héloïse, Marianne and Sophie, there is a bond between these three women that is strong. They operate as equals and take care of each other. There are men in the film, but they are entirely superfluous. Despite that, it is clear that men make the rules in this world, and women work around those rules as best they can. Despite the hundreds of years that have passed since this long ago age, this is still largely the case.
The acting by Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel is excellent. The love between their characters, Marianne and Héloïse is quite believable, as is the pain and anguish caused by the circumstances of their forbidden love. This film rates a B. In French, with English subtitles.
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