Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Céline Sciamma | 2hr 1min

The perspective that Céline Sciamma offers us in Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not just that of a spectator viewing a gallery of beautifully delicate paintings, but rather that of the painter themselves, translating every curve and angle of their subject’s visage into its artistic equivalent. That interpretation can only come after an intense study of these details – the contour of the cartilage on an ear, or the way they don’t blink when they are annoyed, as is the case in Marianne’s observation of Héloïse. It is a connection more akin to lovers than a contractor and client, and it is through this lens that such a relationship forms between both women on the distant French island of Brittany.

When Marianne arrives in Héloïse’s life, the young woman of the gentry has already proven herself difficult to capture a likeness of in her refusal to sit still, though her mother is determined for a painting to be completed so that the Milanese nobleman she is betrothed to knows what she looks like. Beyond this island of seaside cliffs and large French manors, it is a world of men that dictates the rules of romance, art, and politics with heavy hands and enormous egos. Besides the glimpses we get of those men who ferry women to and from the isle, this is not the world that Sciamma is interested in depicting. In their absence, a fresh new dynamic begins to form around Marianne and Héloïse, bound not by the oppressive gazes and laws of men, but rather by the slowly expanding limits of their own curiosity.

Seaside cliffs and beaches making for exquisite settings to this blossoming romance, these lovers’ faces and bodies staged beautifully within them.

Not every frame here is seeping with the picturesque imagery its title might express, but as this story gracefully flows along, Sciamma intermittently lands us with the sorts of visual compositions that leap out in their still, expressive beauty. Marianne and Héloïse’s deep red and green dresses imprint against pale blue skies, waves, and interiors, lending their rounded shapes to the elegant poses of both actresses who always seem to be aware of their roles as models for Sciamma’s camera. Where expansive oceans and grassy landscapes open entire worlds to them in exteriors, it is inside the neatly curated mansion that she arranges décor like still-life subjects, offering the women a quiet, pensive retreat.

The blocking and arrangement of bodies with set dressing, evoking the elegance of 18th century European art.
Inventive uses of mirrors, emphasising the artist’s gaze.

One night as the women of this island gather around a bonfire to sing a wildly polyrhythmic chant, Marianne and Héloïse wander over to join them. Though the scene carries visual connotations of a coven gathering to share in something not understood by worldly men, there is not the usual uneasiness often attached to such depictions. In this moment, both our leading women begin to consider the possibility that the freedoms and desires they have experienced aren’t so unique to their own circumstances. The patriarchal view of female relationships as being pagan or demonic does not exist here, and as such these rituals of bonding are able to develop naturally without the typical vilification.

Sciamma’s fascination in the mythologising of gender, love, and art continues to reach out into ancient Greek legends, most significantly touching on the fateful relationship between Orpheus and Eurydice. Together, Marianne, Héloïse, and the housemaid, Sophie, read this story, pondering the tragic decision made by Orpheus towards the end while he is leading his deceased lover out of the underworld, being allowed to take her home as long as he does not turn to look back at her. Though Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not a direct adaptation of this story, it does carefully consider its parallels. Just as a simple gaze can bring an artist and their muse together in a powerfully binding love, so too may it divide them forever.

Artistic interpretations of Orpheus and Eurydice all over this film, including Marianne’s painting that captures the pivotal moment of his turning and loss.

Perhaps then it all comes down the purpose of that gaze. A lover might choose to keep their back turned and preserve this tangible connection, though as Marianne notes, Orpheus “doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.” Humans may die, but the impression they leave behind in the imagination of an artist lives on in many forms, and it is with this in mind that Sciamma evokes ghostly visions of Héloïse through Marianne’s eyes, as if in anticipation of their eventual separation. Within the conventional heterosexual myth, that choice to be either a lover or a poet is integral to Orpheus’ fate, though as the patriarchal influence of the outside world begins to creep in on Sciamma’s paradise, it is evident that there is no such thing as the lover’s choice for Marianne – as society would have it she must be a poet, forever staring in from the outside, or looking back from the future.

The spectre of Héloïse hanging over this film, an eternal image of her in that moment before Marianne parts from her forever.

As progressive a story as Portrait of a Lady on Fire may be, such skilful layering of narrative archetypes lends classical definitions to its characters, intertwining their passions with the nature of humanity as it has been represented narratively throughout history. All throughout, it comes back to the gazes of lovers and artists, both of which are especially tied together in Sciamma’s magnificent final shot that spends two and a half minutes zooming in on Héloïse’s profile at a live orchestra performance. While we engage with every tear and smile that breaks across her face, the camera remains unbroken and unwavering, offering a gaze which ties two people closely in a single moment in time with a burning passion, and yet which will only go on to survive as a lonely, singular, and eternally youthful impression.

A superb final shot paired with a remarkable performance – an entire story unfolds on Adèle Hanael’s face over two and a half minutes.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

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