Portrait of a Lady on Fire review: Banishing men makes for a revolutionary period piece

Published in City A.M., Feb ’20

There’s something strange about Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the enlightenment era French-language romance set on an island off the coast of Brittany, and it took me a while to work out what it was.

It’s about three young women: Héloïse, a lonely debutante; Marianne, the bohemian artist hired by Héloïse’s mother to paint her portrait; and Sophie, the teenage housemaid who has found herself with an unwanted pregnancy.

Héloïse’s mother leaves, and for a few days, the trio get to live free of social expectations. Héloïse and Marianne start to navigate their sexual attraction to one another, as well as helping Sophie through several progressively grim attempts at a termination.

The thing that struck me, it turns out, is that there aren’t any men. This is a two-hour film in which there are no named male characters, and no man has more than a couple of minutes’ screen time.

There are only the ghosts of off-screen men – Héloïse’s prospective husband who will be sent her portrait to make sure he likes the look of her; the unknown man who got Sophie into her predicament; the all-male Parisian art establishment in which Marianne has to exhibit her work under her father’s name, or not exhibit it at all.

It’s this female focus that stops it feeling like a fusty, bosom-heaving period piece (although some bosoms are heaved). Instead, it feels revolutionary.

Sure, the central romance in Portrait of a Lady on Fire is between two women, but this isn’t just a lesbian love story. It’s an exploration of relationships between women in all their forms, something that’s become director Céline Sciamma’s trademark, most notably in 2014’s Girlhood, in which she charts the coming-of-age of modern-day French-African teenagers in a down-at-heel Parisian neighbourhood.

It’s sexy, but not gratuitous – and apparently not sexy enough for the French (Sciamma said in an interview that, unlike everyone else, her native audience ‘don’t find the film hot’).

This is a period piece for the modern day, and it’s brilliant. 

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