In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, French filmmaker Céline Sciamma gives the Gothic romance a feminist workout. Set in the late 18th century, the story unfolds primarily in an isolated and windswept estate on the coast of Brittany where mystery lurks and forbidden passions churn. The drafty old mansion’s household comprises three women, to which a fourth is added shortly after the film begins. She is Marianne (Merlant), a painter whose remembrance of things past forms the basis of the movie.
Marianne arrives by sea. The choppy waves rock the boat and eventually toss her painter’s canvases into the sea. Before a word has been spoken, we receive instant insight into Marianne’s character when she dives in, fully clothed, to rescue her “work tools.” After climbing the craggy cliffs that stand between the shore and the estate, she arrives and is greeted by the servant Sophie (Bajrami). The next morning she meets the countess (Golina), who has hired Marianne to paint her daughter’s portrait. It is only then that Marianne learns the strange stipulations regarding her work. She is to paint only from memory rather than direct observation. The subject, Héloïse (Haenel), refuses to pose. The countess requests that Marianne pretend to be Héloïse’s daily walking companion and paint her impressions in secret. The canvas is to be a wedding portrait sent to a suitor in Milan, and if he likes it, a match will be made.
Thus begins Marianne’s observation by subterfuge. Gradually, we learn that Héloïse has recently arrived at her family home from the convent where she had previously resided. Her recently deceased sister was to have married the Milanese gentleman before falling fatally and mysteriously on those foreboding cliffs. Héloïse shows no interest in serving as her sister’s replacement. She notices Marianne’s attentive looks while they walk on the beach and begins to look back. Eventually, she discovers the painting Marianne has been working on in secret, and rebukes the painter for not rendering an honest likeness and instead catering to the demands of the male gaze. Marianne starts the painting again as the countess goes away and leaves them alone for five days.
During this time, Héloïse poses for Marianne in an effort to mutually create a portrait satisfying to both of them. Gazing at each other, the topics of agency and authenticity are implicit. Héloïse clearly wishes that she weren’t a pawn in her mother’s arrangement to maintain their nobility; Marianne is frustrated by society’s constraints on female painters. Sophie, meanwhile, struggles for solutions to the biological dictates that have overtaken her reproductive system. It is during this time of intense observation and freedom from the demands of the outside world that Héloïse and Marianne’s looks smolder into desire fulfilled.
In previous films (Water Lillies, Tomboy, Girlhood), Sciamma revealed herself to be a keen observer of women, particularly in regard to tiny physical actions and words unsaid. (The film received the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes.) The lesbian activity, which does not occur until the latter part of the film, is relatively chaste as far as what is seen. What the film excels at, however, is the anticipatory desire. It builds slowly, concluding with a stunning sequence that is all breathless remembrance and self-satisfaction that is both wordless and impalpable. The film will seem the height of romantic desire to some, but will be a slow burn for others. The sparks set off by Portrait of a Lady on Fire are less a red-hot conflagration than the provocative tossing of an eloquent and visually beautiful log onto the eternal blaze that demands women serve as the subjects of their own paintings and films.
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