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An art-fuelled, 18th-century lesbian love affair: French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire released in UK

Emblematic tale of a doomed relationship between a woman and her portraitist, lauded by international critics, goes on show this week

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) Courtesy: Curzon Artificial Eye

As the art world fervently sets to work filling in the missing chapters of art history that omit or sidestep the experience of women artists, here enters a film that packs a powerful remedial punch. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) tells the fictional—but emblematic—tale of a woman who is commissioned to paint the portrait of a girl to send to her future husband. The long, intimate meetings between painter and subject spark a bittersweet romance. The storyline is as much about their doomed relationship and the limitations and expectations of women in 18th-century France as it is about creative fervour and the struggle to commit memories, emotions and personality to canvas. The French-language film premiered in France last September, the US in December, and was released to the rest of the world in February. It has been lauded by critics: the Hollywood Reporter described it as being “as intricately layered, coded and gilded with symbolism as an Old Master” and the Atlantic called it “the most enthralling movie of 2019”.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Céline Sciamma, is in UK cinemas from 28 February

Appeared in The Art Newspaper, 321 March 2020