Portrait of a Lady on Fire – Streaming on Mubi

Tom Grieve, Cinema Editor

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, 28 February 2020–31 March 2021, from £9.99 - Book now

“When do we know it’s finished?”

“At one point we stop.”

Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter, recalls her short time on a Brittany island in the new film from French film director, Céline Sciamma (Girlhood). Set in 1770, the young Marianne arrives at a remote manor house by boat, almost losing her canvases in the swell as she presents herself for her latest commission. She has been hired to paint Heloise (Adèle Haenel), a woman of a similar age who has been recalled from a convent in order to marry a Milanese man following the mysterious death of her sister (the man’s original intended bride), who may have thrown herself from nearby cliffs.

The painting is to satisfy Heloise’s husband to be, and having already refused to be painted by a male artist on account of not wanting to be married, Heloise’s mother instructs Marianne to assume the role of her reluctant daughter’s companion and complete a portrait in secret. Sciamma summons gothic currents, invoking Hitchcock’s Rebecca and even Vertigo, in a depiction of surveillance morphing into romantic obsession as Marianne stalks Heloise, who in turn begins to look back. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is further evidence that cinema is the ideal vehicle for stories of desire and its relationship to looking and watching.

Both actresses are superb, conveying as much with their eyes as dialogue, as the cat-and-mouse tensions between their characters unravel into a love affair. There is much of interest in the ways in which the two women diverge from the norms of their time (Marianne has had to operate in secret for much of her training and career), but Sciamma is just as concerned with the thorny intersection of art and intimacy. Marianne struggles to capture Heloise’s essence initially, only breaking through and producing good, truthful work when the pair meet as equals and lovers.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is available to watch on Mubi with a subscription. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

28 February 2020–31 March 2021
From £9.99

Things to do right now

Powered by culturehosts
English National Ballet: Swan Lake at the Palace Theatre
Dance Until 8 October 2022, from £13.00

English National Ballet: Swan Lake at the Palace Theatre

Roma Havers: LOB
Literature Until 8 October 2022, from £8.00

Roma Havers: LOB at Contact

The Glass Menagerie at the Royal Exchange
Theatre Until 8 October 2022, from £10.00

The Glass Menagerie at the Royal Exchange

Women in Comedy Festival 2022
Comedy Until 10 October 2022, from £3.00

Women in Comedy Festival 2022

Electric Gamebox at the arndale
Childrens Until 22 October 2022, from £5.00

Electric Gamebox at The Arndale

Victoria Baths Guided Tour
Activity Until 26 October 2022, from £6

Victoria Baths Guided Tour

Illustration entitled ‘Because you cannot tame something so happily wild’ by Emily Hughes showing painted animals in a woodland setting
Exhibitions Until 30 October 2022, FREE

Picture This at The Lowry

vegan super club
Activity Until 25 November 2022, from £50

Supper Club at the Vegetarian Society Cookery School

Elizabeth Gaskell's House garden. Photo by Chris Tucker
Literature Until 11 December 2022, from £4.50

Book sale at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

autumn season at z-arts
Families Until 30 December 2022, FREE

Autumn season at Z-arts

Activity Until 31 December 2022, from £9

Skyliner: Alternative Tours of Manchester