Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)
France (2019) Dir. Céline Sciamma
“Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?”
I’ve not experienced this thing called love but I imagine those who do, especially for the first time, will sense something magical unique to them. What I do understand however, is it cannot be forced, coming from anywhere and directed at anyone.
Late 18th century France and painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) travels to an island in Brittany having been commissioned to paint a portrait for a Countess (Valeria Golino) of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Having recently lost her sister to an apparent suicide, Héloïse is to be married to a suitor in Milan and the portrait is for his benefit, but Héloïse refuses to sit for any painter.
To circumvent this, the Countess has Marianne act as Héloïse’s companion so she can surreptitiously study her features and commit them to memory then paint in secret. Over due course a spark between the two surfaces which nether can fight, so Héloïse agrees to pose for Marianne while her mother is away in Milan, allowing this blossoming romance a chance to bloom.
Céline Sciamma is no stranger to the topic of sexual identity, having covered it in many of her films including her debut Water Lilies which also starred Haenel. This might imply Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a simple retread of past glories, or another way of telling the same story again which many directors are guilty of. But this isn’t quite the case as Sciamma does something quite different in her approach to this subject here.
Sciamma’s tactic is about making the Sapphic love more than an excuse for two women to titillate audiences – the core principle is about recognising the female gaze and not the male gaze. In other words, it is not about what the audience sees, which will naturally comprise largely of men, but what the women see in each other – it is their appraisal and their attraction of the female form which counts and how it manifests itself as love.
A quiet, slow burning film, it shares the sparseness of Lady Macbeth in its aesthetic with only the bold colours of the outfits to give it some life, whilst the energy comes from young maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), Marianne’s main source of information about the family. The pervasive air of melancholy in the wake of the recent death hangs in every vast empty room like a mysterious force.
Even before Héloïse arrives she casts a shadow over the house through reputation alone, like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, a recurring point of reference across this film – to wit: Héloïse’s first appearance has her hidden beneath a black hooded cloak and seen from behind like an omen of doom. Her hood slips to reveal a thick mane of blonde hair tied up yet still no look at her face, teasing the audience and Marianne who runs behind her.
Both ladies are enigmatic in their own way in the eyes of the audience through the age-old blonde/brunette dichotomy, but the underlying shared factor is a mutual resistance of patriarchal values. Female painters were apparently rare in the 18th century – in the film’s coda Marianne can only hold an exhibition of her works under her father’s name – which is Marianne’s defiance; for Héloïse, it is not wanting to be married off just because that is how society operates.
Héloïse notices Marianne’s intent and unsubtle stares at her face, which she interprets as a possible hint of attraction, having not yet learned of her true motive. Marianne hadn’t thought of this but after a first attempt at the painting realised maybe she was looking at Héloïse as more of a subject. When Héloïse learns the truth an agrees to sit, there is a nice moment when she and Marianne exchange notes on how the other behaves, a kind of subtle affirmation of a mutual attraction.
Just to clarify, if anyone is expecting this to be a period version of Blue Is The Warmest Colour, forget it; Sciamma has actively gone the other route and left the smut out of it. There is some brief nudity and a Cruel Intentions inspired saliva trail kiss, otherwise the passion is conveyed through post-coital pillow talk and much simpler exercises, in case anyone needed reminded this isn’t a film for horn dogs.
With the Countess away, the caste system of the house is abandoned allowing Héloïse and Marianne to engage on the same level, including Sophie who even has a subplot of her own. Discovering she is pregnant, Héloïse and Marianne help her get an abortion which concludes with a surreal scene I am either too thick or too male to understand but it is one of the most remarkable shots I ever witnessed in terms of subliminal power.
Sciamma riffs on other films as already suggested but avoids being blatant or derogatory ensuring enough of her own stamp entices the viewer. In keeping with the female gaze premise, the camera stays on one woman as she covets the other, subverting the show but don’t tell ethos without giving anything away, whilst humanising the two leads by not presenting them as objects for our viewing pleasure.
The best thing Sciamma does is leave everything to chemistry between Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, letting it develop naturally, weathering the peaks and troughs, and most importantly, not overdoing the sexual aspect. Haenel has stealthily proven herself a first class actress since her debut, with this being her crowning moment. Merlant is a wonderful running mate, her wide-eyed expressions doing all the talking for her.
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire tackles its gay subject with intelligence, whimsy, and artistic panache, showing Sciamma at the height of her powers as a director. Yet, it leaves its biggest impression as a confident rejection of male driven values and call to action for female filmmakers of all persuasions to show the men how make this sort of film without being tawdry or explicit.