Midway through Céline Sciamma’s masterful Portrait of a Lady on Fire, we get the film’s thematic archstone. So much of this painterly, poetic queer romance is about looking at someone we desire and the feeling of being seen by them, mutually desired. We experience the female gaze, the hesitant flirtations with attraction, and then we hear the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. In the Greek myth, a poet attempts to save his lover from the underworld only to lose her forever when he turns to look at her. The film’s lovers offer their own alternate read of the story, perhaps knowing what fate awaits them. What chance do two women in love have in the 1700s?
I sensed in this moment that Portrait of a Lady on Fire would not just be a film about desire, but about longing, loss, and the sadness of forced farewells. As my heart broke, not only did I feel like I was looking at something wonderful but that the film was looking back at me, acknowledging my own obsessions. What a feeling it is to see and to feel seen by a work of art.
In my heart I whispered to the screen, “Damn, girl, you’ve got me, and now you’re going to destroy me.”
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)
Director: Céline Sciamma
Release Date: December 6, 2019
Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is sent to an isolated island to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young woman who has just left the convent. Héloïse is set to be wed soon, though the marriage is contingent on Marianne painting an attractive portrait for the suitor. There’s a catch to all this. Marianne must paint this portrait without Héloïse posing for it. In fact, Héloïse cannot know that this portrait is being painted at all. The art has to be done in secret. Marianne comes to the island in the guise of a walking companion, joining Héloïse for seaside strolls and then painting her model from memory.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire had me in its thrall from the opening moments. Women begin sketching something or someone over the credits. We only see their hands. Some hesitate before allowing their charcoal to make contact with the canvas, as if gauging a precise trajectory for this first stroke; a familiar initial tentativeness. This is a line that few if any will notice once the work is completed, and yet such is the natural response to any blank surface an artist must fill. The completion of the line is interrupted, and I think it’s with purpose. In retrospect, each hand carries with it the weight and arc of the romance we’re about to witness.
Rendering a stranger from memory is difficult, regardless of the medium. It’s a chase after the fleeing other. Something unique about a new person eludes one’s skills, at least until a connection develops. For Marianne, there’s a game of tag with Héloïse’s smile (or lack thereof) and the way her hands look at rest; and there’s a game of hide and seek, keeping her brushes and canvas cloistered whenever she hears Héloïse’s steps in hall. Héloïse, similarly, seems to play a game of reading Marianne’s obsessive interest in her. Why is she looking at me that way? Does she notice me noticing her noticing me? How much can I remain private, and how much do I want to open up? Do I want to open up, and if so, why?
The thawing relationship between these women is communicated by the change in their furtive glances. At first, there’s a tendency for Marianne and Héloïse look away from each other when they register their mutual gaze. Eventually, they allow their eyes to linger. One can’t help but notice the way Marianne and Héloïse begin to drink in each other’s presence, with eyes flitting up and down, prompting subtle and unsubtle smiles. That is not the look of an artist studying a model but of two people who can no longer deny their mutual attraction. There’s a sensual charge watching these women realize their love, which is in defiance to the world they inhabit.
Love, like art, can be an act of rebellion and of freedom. Alone on this island of elemental splendor, Héloïse and Marianne are the happiest they’ll ever be. If I remember the line correctly, Héloïse, in the throes of passion, asks Marianne if lovers always feel like they are inventing something together. What a novel way to talk about the uniqueness of pleasure with someone else, someone new, someone until now unfamiliar. There is a private poetry written between bodies, a secret language of pleasure; sex is a creative act, or at least it can be. The most erotic moments in Portrait of a Lady on Fire are suffused with an intimate grammar of passion, much of it written in the eyes and expressions of its actresses as well as Sciamma’s aesthetic sensibilities, which are intellectual, carefully composed, and deeply felt. The heart, the head, the eye, and the body are one.
There are very few men in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which drives home the glorious liberation of this romance as well as the pervasiveness and oppressiveness of the patriarchy everywhere else. The only prominent supporting character for most of the screen time is the maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). We learn that she’s pregnant and would like to have an abortion. It is Sophie’s decision, made without consulting the father, who we never see. He does not matter. Her choice is made without wringing hands over morality. It is simply not a good time for Sophie to be a mother. These are women’s bodies and women’s lives. How limited their destinies become once men impose hetero domesticity and gendered subservience.
In one of the most stunning sequences of the film, women on the island gather around a bonfire at night and join each other in song. The scene is a rapture of flames, sparks, and voices. Everywhere else darkness, but here there is light and warmth. There, separated by the flames, are Marianne and Héloïse, unashamed to read one another through the licks of firelight. Part of Héloïse’s dress hem catches fire. For a moment she wants to put the flame out, but she sees how much this image of her excites Marianne. The feeling of being seen in this way excites Héloïse in turn. She poses like an artist model, yes, but also like the beloved beheld by her lover. We see her and wonder what she sees. This cannot last, the image says, but please, just let this feeling last a little longer.
This tableau is not so fleeting. This is the way one lover will remember the other when they are gone. Art makes a momentary feeling an infinite one. In this eponymous moment, the women on screen and the woman behind the camera, literally and figuratively, are on fire.