French director Céline Sciamma’s newest film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, begins with strokes of charcoal on paper, a group of young women learning to paint, and Marianne, the protagonist, sadly staring at a portrait of someone she once knew. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) sits in front of her class, looking past them at the portrait as her eyes fight to keep from crying. It is clear without need for words that she is remembering someone, but the long shot of her face allows Merlant’s expressiveness to begin a story. The portrait, which Marianne says she called Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is from an unusual distance for a portrait. This moment is the first of many in the film where Sciamma examines the relationship between images and memory, launching into a flashback of Marianne being ferried to a mysterious island with a crate full of canvasses and painting supplies.
The film reveals that Marianne has been hired to paint a portrait of a young lady, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), before she leaves home to be wed in Milan. Conversations between Marianne and Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino) reveal that she had refused to pose for the previous painter, and that Marianne must hide her intentions from Héloïse. Marianne’s cover is that she is to supervise Héloïse on daily walks, a precaution her mother takes because Héloïse’s older sister leapt from a cliff to escape the same arranged marriage which Héloïse is now destined for. The first of these walks culminates in Héloïse rushing towards a cliff, followed by a frightened Marianne. Héloïse turns to look at Marianne for the first time, and Marianne begins her task of stealing looks at Héloïse to prepare for her painting.
Marianne’s covert examinations may be the gaze of a painter, but they could easily be mistaken for the stares of a lover. Through Marianne’s lingering looks, Sciamma blurs the line between the stare of an artist and the stare of a lover. Both are an attempt to convert reality into an image, one on canvas, and the other in the mind. In the case of Marianne and Héloïse, the line is blurred even further as the two fall in love. It is not at all surprising that they do, Sciamma establishes a powerful attraction between the two using copious close ups which emphasize the gaze of the characters.
Although the gaze of a lover or a painter are each somewhat universal, Portrait of a Lady on Fire focuses primarily on the way that women look at one another. The film is an attempt to reclaim vision and the creation of images for women. Sciamma intentionally flips the script in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, focussing entirely on women, their stories, and their images. Sciamma has discussed the need for this before, speaking out against the dominance of the male gaze in cinema. Sciamma attempts to remedy this in her films, telling the women’s stories, but also not falling into the trap of simplifying the narrative into a single occidental idea of womanhood. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma addresses the way queer issues intersect with the struggles of women living in a male dominated world, and in her previous film, Girlhood (2014), Sciamma tells the story of the coming of age of a poor black girl living in Paris. In both stories, the characters are multifaceted and Sciamma addresses the nuances of their life rather than going for easy answers.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s strongest portions are the depictions of the love between Marianne and Héloïse. Although there are frequent close ups or extreme close ups to emphasize the passion of the two women, the film is much more concerned with everything surrounding their physical love. Small conversations, inside jokes, and knowing gazes shared when in the presence of others are the focus of the film. Sciamma describes these small shared memories as a language. “It’s this language that you build. That’s what you mourn for when you’re losing someone you love. This language you’re not going to speak with anybody else.” says Sciamma. The film succeeds in showing the development of this language, as the two women build a series of references and memories which remind them of each other such as a page number in a book, or the third movement of “Summer,” from Vivaldi's “Four Seasons”. The film also examines how these memories and images are only a referent to the other person. When Marianne paints a small portrait of Héloïse for herself, Héloïse muses, “After a while, you'll see her when you think of me.” This melancholy line invokes an earlier moment, when Marianne after reading the Ovid’s Orpheus and Eurydice and discussing Orpheus’ decision to turn around, suggests “He doesn't make the lover's choice, but the poet's.” The film examines the way these images and memories are valuable, even if they are sad reminders of people who have been lost. This is one way Portrait of a Lady on Fire rebels against traditional love stories which often ignore the effects of time and change on a relationship, or consign the characters to irredeemable sadness and loss.
Overall, Portrait of a Lady on Fire represents a powerful new addition to Sciamma’s filmography and is a relevant and timeless period piece. I recommend watching Girlhood and especially Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which is one of the most beautiful movies of 2019.
Girlhood can be found for streaming on The Criterion Channel, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire is available for streaming on Hulu.