The plot of Portrait of Lady on Fire * sounds like something out of a Fritz Lang film. That it is merely the inciting incident and backdrop to a deeply felt queer love story is a stroke of genius. Without mincing words, it is a masterwork.
Dreamlike and mercurial Celine Sciamma’s tale of love and heartbreak washes over us and in the end leaves us devastated. A tale inspired heavily by the Greek myth of Orpheus, Sciamma’s romantic tale of a woman falling in love with the woman she’s been hired to paint is peppered in a movie fascinated by how art itself is created. It is an ode, a love poem, both to art and to these two women and women in general.
Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is hired by the Countess (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter Heloise (Adele Hanel). Heloise is promised to a count in Milan who, upon receiving the portrait will decide whether or not to propose to Heloise. Heloise having no desire to marry the man refuses to sit for a portrait thus her mother the Countess, devises a plan.
She hires Marianne as a companion for Heloise. Marianne must study her by day and paint her by night from memory. The idea alone is enough to fill up one movie but Sciamma fills up not more than half an hour. For soon Marianne confesses to Heloise as the two have grown close, though I suspect Heloise had suspected something was amiss. Instead, a curious thing happens, Marianne shows Heloise her portrait and she is underwhelmed.
Heloise tells Marianne she has captured her likeness but has failed to capture her as a person. Marianne is shocked by this reaction, “I didn’t know you were an art critic.” “I didn’t know you were a painter.”
Sciamma, who also wrote the script, gives us characters who think and feel, and who are smart enough to express themselves. After finally admitting their love for each other, the two women begin to make love by the roaring fire. Heloise whispers, “Do all lovers feel as if they are inventing something?” The dialogue is poetic prose but managing to be clear and precise.
Combined with Claire Mathon’s camera Portrait goes to great lengths to not only put us in the moment but to bring the world the women to life. Mathon’s camera likes to sit right in front of Sciamma’s characters, putting us in their intimate space. Then just as we become comfortable she moves it back, knocking us off balance, and forcing us to observe the women before us.
Mathon, Sciamma, and the editor Julien Lacheray conspire to create an ode to the act of creating while also filling the screen with haunted and romantic imagery. Lacheray’s cuts from scene to scene in a way that is wholly unpredictable because she is cutting not by narrative logic, but by the emotional turmoil of Heloise and Marianne.
Even the sound design is lush as Sciamma her sound editor Valerie Deloof amplifies every brushstroke, scratch of a pencil against the cloth, and the crackling of the fire. Life on the island is brought to vivid and distinct life through sounds, acting as a sort of secondary soundtrack. We are settled into the headspace of these two women, not so we can understand their passion for each other, but so we can be caught up in it.
Yet, while Portrait is a rapturous tragic doomed love story it is also so much more. I mentioned briefly how Sciamma wishes to pay homage to the creation of art itself. While posing Heloise asks if Marianne has ever painted nude forms. “Yes but only male forms.” When asked if she isn’t allowed to paint women because of modesty, she replies, “Yes. But mostly it’s to keep us from creating great art.”
A great bonfire of fury rages at the center of Portrait. Sciamma is angered by the sheer numbers of women artists who have been shunted, buried, or discarded by the world. She weeps for how their creations, their muses, have been lost and forgotten. In the end, we see Marriane showing off her father’s work, her father was a great and admired painter, in a museum.
A man walks up to her and mentions how much he loves the painting titled “Orpheus”. Marianne admits to him that it’s hers, she just put her father’s name on it so she could hang it up for people to see. The man nods and tells her how fascinating it is because of its perspective.
Portrait is a lesbian love story, yes. But it is also a love poem for women. Written by a woman, directed by a woman, edited by a woman, and shot by a woman, Portrait is about women but is populated by other women as well. The maid Sophie (Luana Bajrami) is taken under Heloise’s and Marianne’s wing.
The two discover she is pregnant and so they accompany her to the local midwife so she may have an abortion. The three arrive at a nighttime gathering of midwives as they chant a melodious and strangely catchy gregorian chant. Sciamma takes us to the home of one of the midwives and watches in curiosity and delight as the relationship between Sophia and the two women blossom into a sort of sisterhood.
Just when I had Portrait figured out it would do something I wouldn’t expect. Something like have Mariannae sit down to a harpsichord and play Heloise a song until she forgot the notes and couldn’t play anymore. I often say that a film “feels alive”, by which I mean that it has a way about it, a rhythm which is unpredictable and lively. Portrait is alive and can’t help but dance as it tells us a love story of two women who fall in love but must part ways.
Even the way Sciamma and Mathon’s camera will just gaze at the women as they lie in bed, naked and in each other’s arms. They look at the women, body hair, and all, with a sort of clear-eyed honesty. Though they may be sexual they are no sexualized.
Haenel and Merlant as Heloise and Marriane exchange glances and kisses with tender ease. It is the type of film where we try and guess when in the film Heloise realized her feelings for Marianne and vice versa. But in the end, we know it can not be.
The final scene is filled with almost every conceivable emotion, with a few new ones tossed in just because. Sciamma’s Portrait of Lady on Fire is a master thesis on art, women of the past, and of the human condition. Smack dab in the middle of all that highfalutin subtext is a story about two women falling in love. I said masterwork and I meant it.
Image courtesy of Pyramide Films
*We mistakenly referred to the film as Portrait of a Woman on Fire as opposed to its actual title Portrait of a Lady on Fire. We apoligize for the error and the mistake has been corrected.