Pick of the Week: Portrait of a Lady on Fire
French filmmaker Celine Sciamma's scintillating romance drama tells the story of Marianne, a painter, and Heloise, whose wedding portrait she must paint in secret. Set against the backdrop of a windswept French coast, it is a visually stunning, bold and thought-provoking work of feminist cinema.
18th Century, France. Three women sit together in a kitchen. One embroiders a vase of wildflowers placed in front of her, while the other takes three glasses and pours red wine into them, smiling gently. The third woman is chopping mushrooms on a chopping board. Neither of them says a word, but the sense of a profound friendship that need not be verbalised permeates through the scene.
Amongst its series of visceral visuals of womanhood, this scene stands out in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait d’une jeune fille en feu), the latest film by French auteur Celine Sciamma. The Gothic styled romance-drama tells the story of Heloise, the wilful daughter of a countess living on a remote island off the coast of Brittany, and Marianne, a painter hired to paint her wedding portrait. But Marianne must do this in secret, posing as her companion for walks because Heloise will not pose for the painting, she refuses the marriage. What follows is Marianne’s struggle to keep not just who she is but also how she feels a secret, even as friendship, intimacy and an enigmatic tension begin to blossom between the two.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire has the traits of a classic Bronte-esque romance saga - a dramatic windswept setting, a large hollow mansion, two protagonists facing the odds, finding respite in each other’s arms. Sciamma captures all the little details that make young love so special - from stolen glances and tender observations to the ice finally breaking when one makes the other smile for the first time, she caresses these moments without romanticising them. Instead they are expertly intertwined with the film’s broader theme - the female gaze - while remaining within the scope of the plot, elevating it from being about forbidden love and lesbian desire to a far more cerebral and meditative experience.
In a film with forbidden romance at its centre, not its theme, mind you, Sciamma turns away from any and all sentimentality. Take for instance, the scene where Marianne and Heloise accompany Sophie, the young caretaker of the house, to the local herbalist. Sophie requires an abortion, which given the film’s rural setting and time period, takes place on the only bed in the house, with the midwife’s youngest, a baby, playing besides Sophie. It could be mistaken for a crudely symbolic scene: a new life forestalling the arrival of another. But here, it is simply a matter of practicality. Where else would the baby be at night, if not on the only bed in the house? Sciamma’s construction of this poignant scene is stark and brutally honest, and despite its severity, which is alarming at first, it forces you to confront the stoicism women are capable of and with which they tend to view the world.
She calls the film “her manifesto of the female gaze.” There are hardly any men in the film. And whenever they appear, it feels like an intrusion. With the exception of the boatmen who drop off Marianne to the island, all the characters featured in the film are female. The director has subverted the male gaze into a feminine way of looking at the world. Each protagonist appears in the same, simple dress of single colour for a majority of the film, which is otherwise built on intense stares, faces lit by candlelight or by a gleaming sunbeam on the beach, and reflections in mirrors, bringing the audience’s attention to the act of gazing itself, especially to the ways that women watch other women, or the way they look at objects of desire.
Sciamma refuses to incorporate the typical, overused taboos of ‘same-sex love’ expected of period films. Instead, she explores the emotional connections that form from a shared sense of shame or shock at having found oneself in a seemingly ‘unusual’ or ‘forbidden’ relationship. Sidestepping cinematic conventions for portraying sex and nudity, the only time the act itself is shown is in a laid back, playfully sensual scene, in which Marianne and Heloise talk about having images of each other to keep for memory. With society at bay for the moment, both women - headstrong and curious - are able to consider each other’s physicality. The result is a sumptuous yet innocent view of sex and the female form, from a uniquely female perspective. Consider this against the six-minute sex scene between the protagonists in “Blue is the Warmest Colour", where the actors too felt it was demeaning to the romance the film is touted to be.
At its core, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a tale of female solidarity and sisterhood even before being an LGBTQ romance. Sciamma allows the sisterhood to flourish organically in the film’s austere and sparse setting, instead of simply casting typical feminist dialogue around ‘strong women.’ This sorority was intentionally embodied by the film’s aesthetic choices, revealed Sciamma in an interview with Vox. In the kitchen scene at the start of this review, it is the aristocratic woman Heloise, chopping mushrooms, Sophie the caretaker being the embroidery artist while the artist, Marianne pours the wine. All in silence. Social hierarchy is turned upside down, captured in a long take and a wide shot.
It is also reflected in the bond the trio form. They spend a remarkable amount of time with each other - playing cards, laughing heartily or with Heloise reading Ovid’s ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ to them. In the Greek legend Orpheus enters Hades’ underworld in an attempt to bring back his lover, Eurydice, from death. His wish is granted on the condition that he does not turn around to look back at her on his way out. At the very last moment, Orpheus, unable to contain himself, turns to see if Eurydice has followed, fatefully causing her to remain in the underworld forever. Sophie is flustered by the story while Heloise suggests that maybe Eurydice enticed him to turn around. Marianne has a different interpretation, saying that he did not make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s. “He chose the memory of her”. For the remainder of the film, this idea becomes its central image, as the two women fulfil their intellectual and creative passions in each other, seeking to remember rather than regret.
Sciamma's vision brought to life by the magnetic performances of Noemie Merlant as Marianne and Adele Haenel as Heloise, Portrait of a Lady on Fire has a clairvoyance about it that seems far ahead of its contemporaries. Pristine camera work and gorgeous lighting create an air of pensive mystery around each scene, while the scarce use of a background score helps maintain razor sharp control over tension in the film. A bold and electric work of art, brimming with layered, haunting imagery for those who enjoy reading between the lines.
Watch it on MUBI for the next 27 days. Celine Sciamma's celebrated Direction filmography includes Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood as well as screenwriting credits for the Oscar nominated animation film, My Life as a Courgette.