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  • Peter Marra

Now Playing: Portrait of a Lady on Fire at Cinema Detroit

Set in 1770 France, Céline Sciamma’s visually decadent and emotionally intimate feature Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) is a beautiful queer love story that emphasizes the power and peril of ‘the look’ and examines the role of art and image in these relations.

Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a reluctant bride and subject. The prior artist left having never convinced her to sit for him. Marianne begins the process of trying to paint Héloïse in secret, internalizing her form and features as they go about their days together. Struggling to capture her essence as she paints from memory. The film’s initial structure sets up a beautiful duality: Marianne’s stolen glances are required for the act of the portrait yet mirror the experience of queer glances in oppressed spaces, always averted yet never completely imperceptible. As Marianne learns the details of Héloïse, the portrait progresses. At first it is a smudged outline of thick brown paint but progresses slowly into an accurate but soulless approximation.

The pair strike a deal, Héloïse will volunteer to pose, to be seen by Marianne, if Marianne will start again. Their lesbian romance blossoms amid Marianne’s project to distill Héloïse’s essence into artistic form. The film consistently echoes these parallels by bringing to the fore the complex connections between vision and feeling we experience through tactile objects – panning from a smile to a blooming flower from the flower to a crocheted floral stitch pattern. Leaving us to think about what is preserved and what is lost by each turn in a chain of likenesses. This leads to the film’s most visceral and devastating observations – that the images we preserve to memory, like the portrait in the gallery, eventually become a flawed stand-in for the richness of the present moment.

To articulate the tone and feel of the experience, I would raise as a comparison Luca Guadagnino’s popular Call Me By Your Name, another intuited queer romance set in Europe, which found a significant audience in 2018. Hopefully the same happens here. Sciamma’s film is a masterpiece that deserves to be seen.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire screens at Cinema Detroit starting Thursday, March 12th. Tickets are available at

Thu, Mar 12, 6:45, 9:05

Fri, Mar 13, 4:30, 6:50, 9:10

Sat, Mar 14, 4:40, 6:50, 9:10

Sun, Mar 15, 4:30, 6:50

Additional showtimes available online.

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