Sean O’Rourke takes a look at Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
In a scene midway through Portrait of a Lady on Fire (or Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) the two lead characters, Marianna, and Héloïse, one an artist, the other a lady awaiting her encroaching marriage, point out each other’s habitual gestures and their meanings – a bitten lip that signifies anger, a slightly raised eyebrow that signifies a loss of control. And for the rest of the film, those gestures become highlighted and significant. A raised eyebrow might suddenly seem crucial to our understanding of a scene. We might wonder if a bitten lip means the same thing now as it did when it was first identified, giving us insight into the evolution of these characters. It even begins to seem as though each one starts exhibiting some of the habitual gestures of the other.
We see their points of connection in these increasingly shared gestures and the already accomplished performances of Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel become even more meaningful, more revealing. It’s just one example of the excellent plotting done by director Céline Sciamma, who continually begins threads like this that weave their way throughout the film such that each ensuing scene becomes further layered with meaning and emotional resonance. Her skill behind the camera, both as director and screenwriter, is astounding and, on this simple plot, a love story between two women, she paints an astounding portrait of dynamic human connection within societal structures and the possibilities of what those connections might look like when the most harmful of those structures are stripped away.
The film examines this theme by following Marianna, an artist in the 19th century, who has been sent to an island where she is to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse, a young aristocrat. This portrait is to be sent away to Héloïse’s future, unknown Milanese husband. The painting of it, therefore, signals a sort of death of liberty for Héloïse. For this reason, inconveniently enough for Marianna, Héloïse refuses to sit for her portrait. Therefore, Marianna begins to befriend Héloïse, all the while covertly and closely observing her, painting her in secret. However, once all remnants of patriarchal control (which hold Héloïse to her coming marriage, hold back Marianna’s career, and police the types of relationships women are able to have with one another) leave the Island temporarily, Marianna and Héloïse are able to connect more and more closely with one another. They form a loving, ever-evolving bond that has a built-in time limit as Marianna’s painting of Héloïse, and indeed Héloïse herself, must soon be shipped away from this temporary utopia to Milan.
Since the film so adeptly and continually builds and displays the complexities of this relationship as I have said, we get the chance to see and deeply feel the building intimacy between these characters. We see this building relationship in an environment that is usually intensely realistic, with close attention to, for example, the realistic details of the act of painting, of clothing oneself, of cooking and eating. Sciamma uses these realistic details to give us tangible insight into how these characters are growing to perceive each other through how they perform these actions – especially through the act of painting where Marianna must constantly adjust how she depicts Héloïse in accordance with her evolving perception of Héloïse. Therefore, it is startling when this realism is occasionally and suddenly intruded on by myth and the uncanny in moments of artistic inspiration, longing, and anxiety, represented in a non-realistic manner. These moments are made all the more notable for being entirely unexpected in the context of the aesthetic of the rest of the film. And yet, these strange, eerie moments feel perfectly at home in the story, bringing us further into these characters’ perspectives, perhaps implying a shifting perception of the world brought on by their shifting perceptions of each other and vice-versa.
Sciamma handles these altering tones so well and uses them to further her insights on gender, class, human connection, and queerness, fully immersing us in this dynamic relationship and its implications. This unique, beautiful, queer, love story seemed to profoundly affect the audience I saw it with at the Cork Film Festival. I can assure you that it has affected me like no other film this year and I sincerely recommend you seek it out as it becomes more widely available in the coming months.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire screened on Saturday, 16th November 2019 as part of the Cork Film Festival (7 – 17 November).