Photo credit: Lilies Films

'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' Film Review: Ravishing Drama Is a Feminist Tale

Laced with bittersweet romanticism, director Céline Sciamma’s strong prize contender is fundamentally about the act of looking


You don’t need any prior knowledge in order to be wowed by Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” a visually ravishing period drama.

Walk in blind and take in all that this piercingly intelligent treatise on art, agency and queer love in the 18th century has to offer. Go in with a touch more context, however, and this already self-reflexive work takes on an entirely new dimension.

The story of a brief but passionate affair between a portrait artist and her subject, the film sets its sight on the gaze. Laced with bittersweet romanticism, the strong prize contender is fundamentally about the act of looking, of watching somebody else with intense yearning and seeing them stare back at you.

We follow talented artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) from Paris to Brittany, where she is commissioned to paint the pre-wedding portrait of a young noblewoman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). But the painting must be done in secret, as the bride-to-be refuses to sit for it in protest of her unwanted marriage. So Marianne accompanies her unknown subject as a companion, taking long cliff-side walks while she studies her in full — and little does she know that Héloïse has been staring right back at her.

While the women eventually act on their shared desire for one another, the focus is not wholly on their coupling, which comes into fruition surprisingly late into the story. Instead, the tale tracks the creation of art itself and the collaborative process it entails.

Héloïse learns of the portrait, and when she sees the work that’s been done, she chastises the young painter — not for doing the work in secret, but for doing work to please other (read: male) sensibilities rather than her own. As if Sciamma had taken Laura Mulvey’s feminist film theory and used it to deconstruct the costume drama (which seems to be exactly the case!), the narrative then resets. Now the two women will collaborate on a new portrait, one done in the pursuit of authentically feminine (and feminist, though they’re a few centuries too early to have the right words for that) art.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a film in conversation with itself and with the greater world — a movie made by a female director and a 99% female cast about the need to create authentically representative art that leads the way by doing exactly that.

Films like “Carol,” “Blue Is the Warmest Color” and “The Handmaiden” have been the talk of the festival in recent Cannes vintages, but all have come from male directors and have had predominantly straight casts. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” changes that up while offering one meta-textual twist: not only are director Sciamma and lead actress Haenel queer artists, they’re also a former couple.

While it’s normally best to consider a piece of art separate from its creators’ personal lives, this film’s deep self-awareness seems to invite the comparison. As with Spaniards and Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory,” most who see Sciamma’s film in its native country will come in a step ahead of the curve — Haenel did famously come out of the closet onstage at the Césars, professing her love for Sciamma.

They may no longer be together, but with “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” — the story of a bittersweet romance that enriches the lives of both partners even after it ends — Sciamma returns the affection.
The Swedish film "Force Majeure" was a critically acclaimed darling but not exactly a box office hit. So there was an opportunity to take the film's black humor and install the American charms of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell to see how it might fare commercially in "Downhill," opening this weekend. But surprisingly, even box office hits abroad don't always translate when remade with American actors, and the ones that do rarely resemble their original inspiration. Here are the highest-grossing American remakes of foreign films (all domestic box office figures via Box Office Mojo).Jaap Buitendijk/Searchlight
15. Nine Months (1995) - $69.6 Million 
France, "Neuf mois" (1994) 
This much-loved Hugh Grant and Julianne Moore rom-com about pregnancy started as a French romantic comedy called "Neuf mois," but it was the remake that took off in America and abroad, grossing $138 million worldwide.
Twentieth Century Fox
14. "Dinner for Schmucks" (2010) - $73.0 Million 
France, "Le Diner de Cons" (1998) 
The snappy French comedy "Le Diner de Cons," or "The Dinner Game," made over $4 million at the domestic box office after releasing in France back in 1998, spawning this less-critically successful remake from Jay Roach starring Paul Rudd and Steve Carell.
13. "Eight Below" (2006) - $81.6 Million 
Japan, "Antarctica" (1983) 
Both "Antarctica" and "Eight Below" were big box office hits. How could a survival story about eight huskies not be? But while "Eight Below" is a Disney-fied and whitewashed version of the story, the Japanese film hews closer to a real-life ill-fated rescue mission from the '50s. "Antarctica" also held the box office record in Japan until the release of "Princess Mononoke" in 1997.
Walt Disney Pictures
12. "Vanilla Sky" (2001) - $100.6 Million 
Spain, "Abre Los Ojos" (1997) 
Cameron Crowe directed Tom Cruise in the American remake of Alejandro Amenabar's "Abre Los Ojos," about a handsome and vain man who suffers an accident that disfigures his face. Crowe's version follows Amenabar's closely but makes a significant change to the ending that polarized some critics and audiences.
Paramount Pictures
11. "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" (2011) - $102.5 Million 
Sweden, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" (2009) 
While technically an American version of Stieg Larsson's book, the success of David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" owes a lot to the overseas success of the Swedish adaptation of the book. The Swedish version grossed over $10 million in America and over $100 million worldwide. And the film's star, Noomi Rapace, set the stage for screen versions of Lisbeth Salander, further using it as a launching pad for her own English-language acting career.
Columbia Pictures Corporation
10. "The Italian Job" (2003) - $106.1 Million 
Britain, "The Italian Job" (1969) 
Mark Wahlberg might not be Michael Caine, but F. Gary Gray's retro caper of the classic British heist movie was a box office hit and helped put Mini Coopers back on the map stateside.
Paramount Pictures
9. "The Upside" (2019) 
France, "The Intouchables" (2011) 
Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart starred in this sweet remake of "The Intouchables," a movie that made so much money in France that it became a cultural event. After earning $166 million in France, the country's second-highest-grossing film ever, and over $426 million worldwide, an American remake of the film was inevitable, and it proved bankable as well. It made $108.2 million domestic but only did modestly overseas for a worldwide total of $125.8 million.
8. The Grudge (2004) - $110.3 Million 
Japan, "Ju-On: The Grudge" (2002) 
"The Grudge," like "The Ring," was part of a wave of Japanese horror remakes from the early 2000s and also spawned several other American horror sequels. As of 2020, even the American remake now got its own remake, though that one sputtered at the box office in comparison.
Columbia Pictures Corporation
7. "The Birdcage" (1996) - $124.0 Million 
France, "La Cage aux Folles" (1978) 
Mike Nichols' "The Birdcage" isn't just a remake of a foreign film, it's also an adaptation of a long-running French play. Both film and play are titled "La Cage aux Folles," and the French film adaptation was nominated for three Oscars following its release in 1978.
6. "The Ring" (2002) - $129.1 Million 
Japan, "Ringu" (1998) 
The American version of "The Ring" remains the highest-grossing horror remake of all time, and it was so wildly successful that it spawned a whirl of other American remakes of Japanese horror films, including "The Grudge," "Pulse," "The Eye," "Shutters," "Mirror" and more, all within a few years of each other.
5. "The Departed" (2006) - $132 Million 
Hong Kong, "Infernal Affairs," (2002) 
Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" is so intrinsically tied to Boston cops and gangsters that it's hard to remember that the film's twisty story of moles and double crossing originated in Hong Kong as "Infernal Affairs," which itself spawned several sequels abroad. And while the film's critical acclaim in Japan was impressive, it was Scorsese's film that won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Warner Bros.
4. "Godzilla" (1998) - $136.3 million 
Japan, "Godzilla" (1954) 
Roland Emmerich's "Godzilla" starring Matthew Broderick wasn't a hit with critics, but it did stomp all over the box office in 1998, becoming the 9th-highest-grossing film of the year.
Warner Bros.
3. "True Lies" (1994) - $146.2 Million 
France, "La Totale!" (1991) 
The French "La Totale!" is firmly a comedy and performed modestly at the French box office, but James Cameron made it his own when he cast Arnold Schwarzenegger in his tongue-in-cheek action blockbuster.
Twentieth Century Fox
2. "3 Men and a Baby" (1987) - $167.7 Million 
France, "3 Hommes et un couffin" (1985) 
Made on a midsize budget and starring the most '80s cast of Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg and Ted Danson as three bachelors watching over a baby, "3 Men and a Baby" was a surprise comedy hit as the top grossing movie of 1987. But its French predecessor was likewise a success, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film in 1986.
Buena Vista Pictures
1. "Godzilla" (2014) - $200.6 Million 
Japan, "Godzilla" (1954) 
"Godzilla" has had so many remakes and sequels over the years, but Gareth Edwards' film gets closer to the melancholy of Ishiro Honda's original monster movie than ever before.
Legendary/Warner Bros.
15 Highest-Grossing American Remakes of Foreign Films, From 'Godzilla' to 'The Departed' (Photos)
“Downhill,” opening this week, is a remake of the critically acclaimed Swedish film “Force Majeure”
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