Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A WGSS Film Series Event

On Tuesday, March 28th, I attended a film series hosted by JMU’s Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) department. This event was located within JMU’s campus on the ground floor in Burris Hall. The movie was introduced by JMU’s French Professor Dr. Dorothee Polanz and was entitled “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” In a broad summary, this French speaking film is set in the 18th century and tells a story of two women named Marianne and Heloise. Marianne was hired to secretly paint Heloise’s portrait but as the two women meet, they become inseparable and in love with one another so they share their last moments of freedom together leading up to Heloise’s marriage ceremony. This film, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” promotes the idea of women empowerment by having a mostly all female, independently portrayed cast while highlighting several feminist and LGBTQ+ issues.


Heloise’s mother wants a fresh start away from their current residence to escape the feelings she has endured there. So, she commissions Marianne to paint Heloise’s portrait and have it sent to potential suitors. Heloise’s sister was the one who was supposed to be married off while Heloise was living in the coven. However, on a walk one day with the unnamed maid, Heloise’s sister committed suicide by falling off the side of a cliff. A few days earlier, she sent Heloise a letter with the words, “I’m sorry” and Heloise understood that her sister was sorry that she left her with her unfortunate fate, the expectation of Heloise to marry this stranger. In the film, I thought it was ironic that they never actually used the word suicide and instead, just implied that that was what happened. I understand that this could be to avoid potential triggers to watchers but I also think the word should be spoken in a feminist featured film since mental health is an intersecting issue.

When Heloise is discussing her time at the coven with Marianne, she says the words, “equality is a pleasant feeling.” When Heloise says this, she is implying how she would never be equal in her arranged marriage with any type of balance and instead, would always fall a tier lower to her husband. In arranged marriages, the women typically have no say in who she is going to marry but yet, the men could still view the woman’s portrait and decide if he would like to marry her or not based solely off of her looks. Later in the film, Marianne conveys how she is also not allowed to paint nude men but only nude women, while men artists are allowed to paint either gender naked which in the art world is a complete disadvantage since nude pieces are highly valued. This movie brings to light the inequality that women face based on their self-identified gender compared to men.

A larger plot in the film highlighted the feminist issue of abortion. The unnamed maid tells Marianne that she has fallen three months pregnant but does not wish to keep the baby and wants an abortion. Marianne says that she has had an abortion before and helps the housekeeper with at- home abortion strategies. We watch the maid run laps on the beach until she falls and cries from being so tired, hang by her hands from a ceiling pole until she falls to the floor unconscious and drink a type of soup made from plants the three women had picked earlier from along the beach. After the three were informed that their strategies weren’t successful in completing the abortion, they traveled to a woman who performed at home abortions. The film depicted how dangerous and painful this procedure was to the housekeeper’s physical and mental health. This scene, specifically, enforced the idea of how it is essential for women to have access to safe and affordable abortion and prenatal related care, since abortions will continue to occur even if they are deemed illegal. Overall, this event was informative as it highlighted several feminist issues while promoting self- identified women and LBTQ+ rights and equality.

One thought on “Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A WGSS Film Series Event

  1. This sounds like a really intriguing film! I wish I would have gone to that to see it, but I will make sure to do that at some point.


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