Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★½


Chalk pencil on white canvas. Brush hairs coated in paint filling-in a subject's skin tone. Eyes glancing across the curvature of a neck, a collarbone, a cheek. Through imagery - and especially sound design - Céline Sciamma connects all of these acts, phenomenologically conveying the sensuality of touch that links the gaze and the brush stroke. Because, when it comes down to it, drawing a person's portrait requires an intimate translation of what the eye sees to what the hand draws, a caress of the subject by the glance that turns into a caress of the canvas by the brush, all without two bodies ever actually touching.

As Sciamma's characters so flirtatiously describe, the act of portraiture involves an exchange of gazes - between the subject and the painter; what Merleau-Ponty would consider a chiasmic exchange. In this way, Marianne and Héloïse come to know each other intimately before knowing each other intimately. They have to imagine each other in the strictest sense, that is cognitively producing mental images of one another. Of course, the ephemerality of those mental images versus the ones captured on a canvas versus the reality becomes the simultaneously sensual and sorrowful center of the film. These women are forced by the social taboos of the time to hold their memories of one another, their images, within themselves. There is then a sort of overlap, where Marianne is inside Héloïse as Héloïse is inside Marianne. Sciamma exquisitely implies this visually a couple of ways, but most memorably when she depicts Marianne's reflection in a mirror covering Héloïse's vagina. Not only do these women carry each other inside themselves, but fiery anger, musicality, passion, and so much more that is only allowed to escape during their brief stay on the film's liminal island utopia.

Of course, there is another gaze. That of the camera, of us. Sciamma frames her actresses centrally, symmetrically, their eyelines slightly off-center, like a portrait. These moments of unencumbered bliss are equally fleeting for us, only remaining in our own memories after we leave the theater. Do not turn away from them. Look!

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