Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★★

When we sit down to begin Céline Sciamma’s divine Portrait of a Lady on Fire, we are greeted by a blank canvas, one ripe with limitless potential. Then, it tantalizingly continues to cut from one canvas to another, as we see different hands outline a charcoal sketch. Each brush stroke is unique in its approach, some gentle, some violent. We then reveal what lies behind the canvas: Marianne is holding an art class, and is posing for the students. They’re all attempting to draw the same person, but their sketches will inevitably be the product of their own biases, training, and perspective. Any attempt to capture the person right in front of them will always pale in comparison with the real thing. Yet they persist. And the canvas of this film will continue to be sketched and shaded in, a rendering of fictional, subjective memory that sticks with us as vividly as if we’ve gone through it ourselves.
Sciamma’s film is a masterpiece of slow burn queer romance, a specific mini-genre that’s gained some steam in the last few years, with films like Call Me By Your Name and Weekend winning indie hearts and minds. But this film has no previous source material, and yet arrives feeling like a lost classic of fine literature, although one that firmly belongs up on screen. It even has our hero arrive at a conspicuously secluded island off the coast of Brittany, France, merely instructed to climb up a rock face to the mansion above. After drying off her only cargo by the fireplace, a soaked canvas, she is treated to some wishy-washy beating around the bush, until the purpose of her visit is revealed. Marianne has been hired by the mother of Héloïse to paint her before Héloïse is sent to be married off to a Milanese royal. But there’s a catch: Marianne must do this in secret, only letting on that she has been hired to take Héloïse on strolls by the water. For a while, you wonder whether this will turn into a sadistic, morbid game that Marianne must play along with. But when Héloïse’s hood comes down, and her face fills the frame, you see there is no fear, only profound sadness. This is the moment we, and Marianne, learn how to love her.
That face belongs to Adèle Haenel, a French actor with soft features that nonetheless can read as brick-solid, clamming up in moments of agony or distrust. Haenel’s performance is all about what we can’t quite see, ensuring that she remains enigmatic through the film’s runtime but never surface-deep or flat. Noémie Merlant on the other hand, portrays Marianne as remarkably transparent, wearing her heart on her sleeve and struggling with the art of deception. This is the plight of the artist, transmitting their energies to the world, and always struggling to interpret what they receive back. During their walks, we are given license to observe both women as if we will reconstruct their image ourselves. The way their lips tremble at each other’s gaze, the twitch of their fingers as they struggle to maintain composure, if their posture is straight or slack. And then we see the act of painting itself, a transfixing give and take of delicate acts, difficult to reverse when enacted. In these sequences, Sciamma is clearly welcome to examining pure process, but she also understands what is both gained and lost in creation. Some decisions yield exciting outcomes, others feel like stabbing your firstborn. And when the painting is done, it means the journey has come to an end as well. And for Marianne, that is unacceptable.
Merlant and Haenel get plenty of scenes together, with which to flirt, wound, and further ensnare each other. At one point Héloïse coos “Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?”, and the query is a valid one. What part of infatuation arises organically, rather than something that we merely project onto the other? Yet when a connection is genuine, it defies all subtext, and becomes unstuck from logic. And so this lesbian romance in the late 1700’s is no longer impossible, but as fated as the advent of electricity. There is no sugarcoating of the societal expectations that challenge this affair, but there’s also no need for the typical fear of alienation or harm. In fact, it’s merely a quandary for the two lovers to decide upon, a dilemma that harbours masterful tension and tenderly erotic passion.
What follows is a completely arresting blending of the lines between fixed reality, memory, and dream. But we are encouraged to trust and believe in all, and each digression feels more natural than the last. Sciamma assembles a relatively lean array of consummate professionals to execute her ultimate vision, and each team member pushes their abilities to great heights. Claire Mathon’s cinematography is a ravishing mix of buttery pastels in larger than life compositions that give the content a mythic proportion, employing soft light sources to maintain the earthy fantasy. Although the team gets a massive helping hand from the film’s locations, like the beaches of Saint-Pierre Quiberon, which contain rock formations so awe-inspiring that it could make an accounting seminar held there seem riveting. And the requisite period corsets the characters don are brilliantly coordinated by Dorothée Guiraud in degrees of saturation: they seem to radiate ever brighter the more feverish the two become, that is, when they’re not on the floor. Editor Julien Lacheray, the sound team of Valérie Deloof and Daniel Sobrino, and electro group Para One, conspire to turn silence and pauses into red herrings, unassuming teases that suddenly explode into spirited cries, like during the genesis of the title image, or a dizzying final shot. Sciamma and crew elevate the film to Kubrickian heights, but far be it for the work to be weighted in comparison to its peers.
Refreshingly, the film is consumed by the female gaze, the inverse of the overwhelming perspectives that crowd art and life in all forms. It evokes the joy and suspicion that comes from looking and being looked at, and ponders the ownership of that very gaze, whether the subject owns the artist or vice versa. There is nudity, but Sciamma finds ways to get around sex scenes without feeling toothless, such as a highly suggestive shot that ends with a cosmic punchline. It envisions a reality where women are left to their own devices, to play cards and to shoot the shit, activities they take up with Héloïse’s shy house help, Sophie. When Sophie experiences a trauma, Héloïse suggests the three become co-conspirators in artistic recreation. These moments can be made sharper and more vivid when externalized, but perhaps this is the only way to move past the ghosts that wander the hallways of your mind.
One of the activities the trio participate in is a late night reading of Orpheus and Eurydice. In the famed myth, Orpheus is told he can free his wife from damnation if he promises not to look back at her before exiting Hades. When Sophie learns Orpheus does indeed turn back, she is shocked and appalled. But Marianne and Héloïse are wiser: perhaps Eurydice called for Orpheus, preferring to leave him with a memory. Both bear responsibility for the loss.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an incisive, sensual look at this very idea of responsibility, the one we have to each other, the bodies of work we let loose into the world, and our own self care. Nothing is permanent, and the acts of preservation we partake in can only provide a shadow of what we’ve left behind. But that shadow can also be a blanket, one we can tuck ourselves into, and be happily swallowed up by its cozy, sorrowful embrace.

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