Portrait of a Lady on Fire directed by Céline Sciamma is a period romance set in France in the 1770s and it is destined to be a classic. The movie tells a tale of love, desire, art, and memory through the eyes of two women, who find each other through art, challenge their roles as artist and muse, and choose to perpetuate their love through art.
At a time when history was reserved for the rich, grand, and male, the personal history of the marginalized and women in love could survive only in memories that occasionally cropped up in grand exhibitions through a sleight of hand, meant only for the pleasure of that one person. Unlike men, our protagonists cannot freely express their love through art, and unlike Shakespeare, cannot hope to perpetuate their love or immortalize the beloved — “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” They do not have the luxury of such ambitions. Art for them is not a vanity project to be exhibited or collected, it is deeply personal, existing in personal spaces such as on an unprinted page of a book — artifacts that they would probably take with them to their grave — meant only to stoke the memory of a happy moment. Art is intimate.
In fact, it is the titular painting that triggers a memory and takes us down Marianne’s memory lane. Marianne (Noemie Merlant), a young French painter, is commissioned to paint a rather elusive subject, Heloise (Adele Haenel), a woman of an aristocratic French family. Upon reaching the estate of the family located on an isolated island, Marianne learns that Heloise had previously foiled an attempt to be painted by another painter. The painting is for a Milanese nobleman whom Heloise is betrothed to. Heloise’s mother suggests that Marianne pretend to be Heloise’s walking companion, memorize her features, and paint her without her knowledge. Marianne agrees. Soon, between furtive glances and guarded conversations, they begin to develop an attraction towards each other. However, what begins as furtive attempts to capture the physical features of the subject soon ends up being an act of deception not just toward the subject but to the artist herself. It is then the story becomes a meditation on the artist and the muse.
Historically, the relationship between the artist and the muse has heavily been in favor of the artist — the creator — with the muse being marginalized as merely an object. The great works of art that have stood the test of time are hardly ever recognized for their muses, except perhaps for a few, although the paintings are supposed to be collaborations between the two parties. Even before the movie hits the half-time mark, this tradition is challenged by Heloise, which eventually sets in motion a collaboration destined to become something more, as both the women find the liberation they sought for in love.
The movie is strikingly minimalist, and it is so by design. A film that is set in the latter half of the eighteenth century when the extravagant grandeur of the Baroque and Rococo styles had given way to a bit more austere, but in no way less majestic, Neoclassicist style, feels more Romantic in spirit (it also has a touch of the gothic in some scenes). It is more focused on exploring the emotions of the characters as individuals without imposing classical archetypes on them. Even when it does relate to mythology, the characters choose to mold it according to their own impulse, instead of accepting the traditional narrative. For instance, towards the end of the movie, a person at an art exhibition thus expresses his surprise at a painting of Orpheus and Eurydice, “Usually, he’s [Orpheus] portrayed before he turns or after, as Eurydice dies. Here, they seem to be saying goodbye.” The Orpheus story becomes analogous to their love’s fate, but its reinterpretation as presented in the painting becomes an act of defiance of the traditional order.
Sciamma’s direction and Claire Mathon’s cinematography convey the uneasiness of the protagonists’ budding attraction for each other through long stares, often interrupted by Marriane and Heloise catching each other stealing glances. The two leads ensure that every emotion their characters are going through comes out clearly. As so much of the acting is done through the eyes, it is impossible to hide any insincerity or lack of commitment. Their eyes become the windows to the souls of the characters they play, which is to say they become the characters. Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel do a phenomenal job.
On a field at night during a festival when the attraction does overpower their inhibitions, they share an unbroken gaze. Mathon’s camera captures the moment with such brilliant use of perspective, which is intensified by a folk song. Sciamma chooses to show the gradual progression of the song as it catches on from one vocalist to another, quite like a fire, until we see its effect on Heloise through Marianne’s eyes. At this moment, Heloise is both literally and figuratively touched by fire. The moment is engraved in Marianne’s mind and it becomes the Portrait of the Lady on Fire.
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