Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) – dir. Céline Sciamma

“Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?”

If Portrait of a Lady on Fire were to have any quote linger, maybe to the point of parody, one would be hard-pressed to find a sentiment as instantaneous as the one above. Take a look at Letterboxd right now; several user reviews bring up that line. But I’d be lying if I said that moment, preceded with gradual escalation, didn’t land like a sucker punch. And as effusive as one can be about that piece of dialogue, nothing sums up the film’s ethos so cleanly: That two people can feel so strongly about one another, whose passion can never be totally replicated, and whose presence–even as a specter–touches everything that exists between the beginning and end of a relationship.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is, on paper, a laughably trite art house film. Minimalist period piece? Check. Moves at a snail’s pace? Check. Tragic and/or forbidden queer romance borne both from oppressive societal expectations? Check. A B-story with a matter-of-fact quest to get a character an abortion? French? Oh, mon dieu, coche. And yet, few films can find so many layers in seemingly tried and true territory. Céline Sciamma takes her time, still bringing an end to the affair all too soon, weaving an indelible tapestry of romance, companionship, and artistry in what is as satisfying and thoughtful as a love story can be.

Right out of the gate, Portrait of a Lady on Fire evokes one the 2010s’ finest romantic dramas Call Me by Your Name–a film that begins with a montage made of photographs featuring aged statues–with a series of shots each beginning with the first strokes of a painting, an approximation of a group of art students’ instructor Marianne (Noémie Merlant). She lectures on form from a remove, telling these wide-eyed young women to start with her shape, and to move into the finer details, but not too quickly. A good piece is done with attention, with adoration. More importantly, Marianne knows that a truly compelling work comes from knowing and considering the subject, telling us how to watch the movie just as much as she’s teaching how to paint well. Her attention is then drawn to a canvas of a shadowy expanse with a figure partially engulfed in flame: The eponymous tableau.

We never see Marianne craft “Portrait de la jeune fille en feu,” but we see how the image is formed. Taking place over no more than a few weeks, Marianne is hired by The Countess (Valerie Golino) to, under the guise of a walking buddy, secretly produce a portrait of her daughter, being taken away from  that can be sent off to a potential suitor in Milan.  We meet the subject Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) just as Marianne does: Following Héloïse as she sprints towards the cliffs where her sister took her own life, just barely avoiding the plunge to a similar death. But as she stops herself, Héloïse turns to see Marianne. This is the first of many glances these two will exchange for as long as they know each other. 

From there, Marianne and Héloïse get to know each other, and little by little develop a friendship that sparks into a heated romance. The film even drops the tension of Héloïse finding out the truth of Marianne’s initial purpose for being around fairly early. While there is a faint, albeit looming melancholy throughout the film, Sciamma isn’t crafting an indignant plight of “what should or could have been.” Portrait of a Lady on Fire is aware of the 18th-century politics at play, but the movie–with each lingering, carefully considered shot, and sound so sparse that even music is exclusively diegetic–wants us to live in the space where Marianne and Héloïse can not only fall in love, but be in love. The boundaries of their era are vital in establishing just how transcendent their love is, despite how trapped they are and how they’re treated for being women.

The film doesn’t work without the nakedness with which Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel embrace each other. Their dynamic is intellectual, to be sure, but also unabashedly sensual. Though the film is not without eroticism, there is more tenderness than carnal titillation. Set in Brittany, the two are mostly by themselves in The Countess’s seaside estate. The only other major character who is with them is the unassuming housemaid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who exists on the periphery–save for the aforementioned pregnancy subplot, which parallels the relationship-that-cannot-be between the two leads, while also serving the thread of a woman’s fear of being tied down by cultural norms. But the film, boldly muted and measured in tone and pace, lives and dies on how invested one is in Marianne and Héloïse, who are there for each other when no one else is. Marianne may be relegated to a spinster’s existence, while Héloïse is being forced into a marriage she doesn’t want. They’re worried of being unseen and forgotten, of being put in a box for others to decide what to do with.

That need for freedom, for liberation, is perhaps what drives the film most. In an early scene, as Marianne is being rowed to the island, her easel falls into the channel. Without hesitation–much less help from the many men paddling the boat–Marianne dives into the water to rescue her things. Marianne’s oils and brushes aren’t in danger. None of her work is at risk of being destroyed. She could probably get another easel or even paint on something else. But an artist’s instruments are personal to them. Portrait of a Lady on Fire could be characterized the same way. While, yes, Marianne and Héloïse have had lives and known some degree of happiness before each other, they’re worth the risk to one another, even if they’ll never know that kind of connection again. One could argue that love or passion are their own prisons. But at least we can choose them, if only for a while.

Since seeing Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and even a little before, I’ve been lingering on the nature of artistic creation. Do we make art to capture what we love and value, or is the mere act of building something from sheer feeling what love is in the first place? Perhaps my favorite motif of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is whenever we cut to Marianne in the act of painting. Each stroke is bewildering, in a way. Almost perverse or discomforting. We know what what we’re meant to be looking for; we know we’re eventually supposed to see the likeness of some individual. But there’s something jarring about reckoning with each step that leads to something that will hopefully be beautiful and eternal.

However one wishes to interpret art as love, what is clear is how understood the subject has to be for an artist to render something meaningful. Whether this is the quiver of a lip, or how one crosses their hands, or the shape of an ear, what greater affection can be shown than someone like Marianne, or Céline Sciamma for that matter, witnessing someone else so closely and bring to life a work so striking and lasting? That’s the greatest power of love: How one is forced to consider the depths of a single person and accept every element, appealing or otherwise. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is, if nothing else, a reminder of that quality, allowing us to look at who or what frees or awakens us, and take them in one piece at a time.

Rating – 9.6/10



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