Celine Sciamma’s gorgeous Portrait of a Lady on Fire meticulously constructs the relationship of Marianne (Noemie Merlant), a portrait painter, and Heloise (Adele Haenel), her initially reluctant subject. Marianne is hired by the Countess (Valerie Golino) to paint Heloise’s portrait, in an effort to secure her marriage to an Italian gentleman who was originally going to marry Heloise’s now-deceased sister. But Heloise doesn’t want to marry, and so has hitherto refused to sit for a portrait. With the help of the Countess and a single maid, Sophie (Luana Bajrami), Marianne poses as a hired companion in order to study Heloise and complete her commission.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is all about the look – who is looked at, who is doing the looking, and why – and the desire contained within it. As Marianne attempts to surreptitiously study Heloise, she begins to fall in love first with the image – the hands, the eyes, and the mouth – and then with the woman. As the film proceeds, Heloise also takes possession of the look, their love story playing out through a series of gazes, long and short, that build upon each other. Cinema often presupposes the camera gaze as masculine, so Portrait of a Lady on Fire feminizes it, rendering it emotional and possessive without objectification. The occasional nudity is intimate, but it is the shape of eyes, mouth, hands, and face that are the most emphasized, depicting the female body, and femininity in general, not as the usual anatomical mainstays of breasts and ass, but as the full composite of the person. Marianne sees Heloise first as a study and, in becoming more intimately acquainted with her, as a full, sensual being.
The construction of Heloise first as an object to be studied and then as a full person turns itself outward to the construction of the frame itself—the film is not a “living painting,” but rather constructs visually arresting, fleeting images that are a true marriage of moving cinema and static art. While some shots could be framed and mounted on the wall, to remove them from the construct of the full, living work would be to undercut their power. They are liquid images, and the film captures and then releases them, creating a cascade of sensory perceptions that flow over the viewer before receding just as quickly. It is as impossible to capture the essence of the film in a single static shot as it is for Marianne to capture Heloise’s smile.
In this as in its thematics, Portrait of a Lady on Fire renders painting, cinema, and the world the characters occupy as inherently feminine. There are no male characters of note, and only one with more than a single line of dialogue. While patriarchy constrains the characters, Heloise, Marianne, and Sophie construct a world in which men are not even signifiers. The portrait is being done for an absent suitor without a name – a “Milanese gentleman” – but he is merely a background element necessary for the movement of the narrative, not a character or even a visible figure. The universe encompasses Heloise, Marianne, Sophie, and occasionally the Countess, who returns at intervals and expresses some sympathy for her daughter’s circumstances. The need for Heloise to marry is part of her social constriction, but there is joy within the society of women that even that cannot undercut. The affair must end, the love story will eventually close off, but the emotional resonance will, like Marianne’s portraits, live on.
The construction of an exclusively feminine world stretches into the physical world of the home itself. Heloise, Marianne, and Sophie gradually construct a home life that is relatively equal, similar to what Heloise experienced in the convent from which her mother removed her. Despite the apparent class distinctions – Heloise is technically aristocratic, Marianne middle-class, and Sophie working class –the hierarchy breaks down and eventually becomes non-existent. Sophie’s tribulations, including an unwanted pregnancy, are then supported by Marianne and Heloise, the distinctiveness of their classes broken down within the home life. The implication here is that, left to their own devices, feminine society would no longer have class distinctions, and by extension that hierarchy and patriarchy are inextricable from each other. The power of this narrative does not mean that the women are perfect – the Countess in particular is a staid element, representative of patriarchal concerns (even as she empathizes with her daughter) – but it does create a dynamic that prizes feminine society, art, and desire. The women create beautiful art – from the needlepoint made by Sophie to the songs sung by peasant women to Marianne’s portraiture – and they do it outside the strictures of masculine prerogative.
But the center of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a lesbian love story, an unequivocally passionate, sensual, and sexual love that the two main characters never question. There are no debates or conversations about the rightness or wrongness of their love, even as they are aware that it cannot last. While their actual physical connection comes late in the film, the passion between them only escalates over its course – it’s a love that folds in these elements of female society, artistic study, and sexual love, to create something at once transcendent and concrete, a deeply emotional and physical connection that holds throughout the years, as Marianne recalls it in the painting of Heloise.
It’s difficult to write about this film, because it is so fantastically visual, so resonant and complex, that distilling it down to a film review on a website seems a disservice to its ability to craft a sensuous, impassioned narrative. Writer/director Celine Sciamma has created something truly remarkable, a cinematic masterpiece that needs to be seen multiple times, but that in even a single viewing sounds an emotional vibrato deep within the viewer. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is cinema, and all that it means, at its finest.