You can choose. That’s why you don’t understand me.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma’s stirring saga of the personal and creative lives between a painter and her subject, is as sensual a cinematic experience as any film of recent memory. Told primarily through the reminiscent eyes of the artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and strikingly shot with photographic strokes by cinematographer Claire Mathon, it’s an attentive picture; one which perpetually gawks at its blushed surroundings, its sapid geography, and most crucially, its two glowing stars – and through its succulent lens, it effortlessly corrals the audience into doing the same.
But the film is also a magnificent achievement as an earnest and delicate drama, one which flourishes at the guidance of a contemporary soul. Through the canvas, two lives convene and are momentarily liberated; their love, though forbidden and largely unseen at the tail end of the 18th century, is instinctive and infectious. While it is only given a slight period of time to manifest, blossom, and retract in the thick of patriarchal tradition, it securely latches itself onto each of their hearts, concealed forever and fondly in spite by those customs.
Portrait begins with Marianne, now an art teacher, recalling the half-month events behind her most private and perhaps, most ominous work: the titular painting, whose subject’s caped gown had been set aflame. Cast across the sea and onto the craggy coast of Brittany, she soon arrives in flashback at the foot of a private chateau. In one short conversation with its keeper (Luàna Bajrami), Marianne discovers that her assignment – producing a portrait of the owner’s daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) – is both unconventional and devilish at heart. Under the guise of a walking companion, Marianne must recreate Héloïse’s likeness entirely from memory.
The fact is that Héloïse isn’t shy, she’s defiant.
The portrait is intended to be a gift for an unseen suitor, a receipt with signature for the marriage a wealthy Milanese stranger plans on sharing with her. The young daughter had exhausted one other painter before Marianne, inciting the need for secrecy, but if the triangle trap laid out by Marianne, the matriarch (veteran actress Valeria Golino) and the Italian bachelor wasn’t devious enough already, it’s actually running through its second cycle. Shortly before Marianne arrived, the same Milanese man was set to marry Héloïse’s sister, though she died before ever leaving Brittany. According to Sophie, the maid who was with her at the time she fatally fell from a cliff, the bride-to-be didn’t scream.
This rather simple, yet throbbing set-up is bloated with mystery, observation, betrayal, and shame. As the two begin unknowingly collaborating, peeling away at each other’s reservations and founding a strong, unforeseen bond, the conditional consequences begin to fall upon Marianne. Not only is she painting Héloïse without her consent, clamping her into a life she clearly doesn’t want, but she does so in direct opposition of her own blossoming heart.
The romance, though constructed atop deception, is mutual, and their encounters are always educational. With every stroll along the cliffside or patted rest on the grainy beach, each woman carefully studies the other. At first, Marianne’s seem occupational (“it explains all your looks,” the unaware subject heartbreakingly says when she finds out the truth), but when they are given the chance to recite their observations to the other, it is a fiery and seductive display of affection.
This level of observance is similarly employed by Sciamma, who eases the film into the narrative perspective of an artist with constant, meditated, nearly caressing gazes. Each directorial step feels distinguished, and deeply coated with thematic purpose. So, when Sciamma leaves the women on their own and introduces an abortion subplot with Sophie, the picture doesn’t jar off course; it still feels healthy, wholly within its parameters, instead largening the shadow with which the unseen patriarchy consumes all three of them.
Despite taking home the best screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival, Portrait of a Lady on Fire was supposedly undeserving of France’s candidacy at this year’s Academy Awards (the tri-color contender was Ladj Ly’s urban thriller Les Misérables). Regardless of its accolades, or the lack thereof – in a year gifted with Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the international feature category was largely impenetrable – its artistry is unmatched. A movie about watching that’s certainly worth watching, it’s also one of the year’s most heartfelt, and heartrending romances.
by Luke Parker