TIFF 2019: ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ Is a French Bodice Ripper With a Queer Twist

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an aptly titled film.

Directed by Celine Sciamma, it’s a love story set in 18th century France. Heloise (Adele Haenel) is a young noble woman being courted by a Milanese suitor, a suitor who wants a feel for what the young woman looks like before proposing. Unfortunately for her family, Heloise abhors the idea of marrying a stranger and refuses to sit for a portrait. Enter Marianne (Noemie Merlant), a female painter from Paris who pretends to be Heloise’s walking companion while secretly studying her. However, what Marianne doesn’t bargain for is how besotted she’ll become with the intellectual, headstrong Heloise.

To say Lady on Fire has been well-received is an understatement. The film, which is now competing at TIFF, won the Queer Palm and the best screenplay prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. A costume drama without the fuss, the protagonists spend most of the movie in relatively uninteresting clothes, in a relatively drab house.

No, Sciamma’s style doesn’t rely on pomp and ceremony to make her film sexy. Instead, her actresses employ longing looks full of sexual tension to illustrate how love can inject beauty into the banalities of everyday life. The set and costume design may be minimalist, but the love story is ultimately explosive. Haenel and Merlant have palpable chemistry, both as lovers and as intellectual sparring partners who spend hours arguing about art.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about Portrait of a Lady On Fire is how this love story is truly about women and we got the chance to sit with stars Adele Haenel & Noemie Merlant to talk a little more about that dynamic.

It’s not just because Heloise and Marianne’s romance is a queer one, but because there are scarcely any men in the movie. As a result, the actresses are given time to create truly layered characters whose fears, hopes, and personality quirks are all on full display. From subtle hand gestures to vibrant love scenes, the stars receive ample opportunity to explore the women they portray.

“There are so many movies with just men,” Merlant tells Addicted “It’s important to give women the opportunity to exist.”

Haenel agrees with her co-stars perspective on the importance of integrating more women’s perspectives in French cinema. “I went to the AGO in Toronto. I love the curating. There were so many women artists compared to our museums!” Haenel adds, “In this country, you obviously think more about women and art.”

Sarah Sahagian

Sarah Sahagian

Sarah Sahagian is a feminist writer based in Toronto. Her byline has appeared in such publications as Elle Canada, Flare, Bitch Media, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. She is also the co-host of You Do You: A Dating Podcast. Sarah holds a master’s degree in Gender Studies from The London School of Economics. You can find her on Twitter, where she posts about politics and live-tweets The Bachelor