Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Directed by Céline Sciamma
Feb 11, 2020
“The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude.” – The Awakening – Kate Chopin
Céline Sciamma’s stunning film begins in the rough waters around 18th Century Brittany. As the waves of the sea crash upon the shore, painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) makes her way to an eerily quiet house near the shoreline. In it lives Héloïse (), housebound and living in deep solitude. She is set to be wed in Milan by her mother, La Comtesse (the countess), who herself yearns for the verve of city living, and who just needs to find a painter capable of producing a portrait of her daughter in order to cement the marriage. Under the guise of a companion for Héloïse, she employs Marianne and asks her to paint her daughter in secret.
Upon her arrival Marianne uncovers the results of a previous attempt, where the face has been deliberately wiped into a muddy blur of skin-toned paint. It’s an unsettling image, a picture that remains covered and in the bowels of the house as though a ghost, lingering between two worlds. At first Héloïse’s presence is no more than that of the portrait, as she drifts through the house cloaked and obscured… in mourning for a lost sister we learn has thrown herself from the cliffs near their country home.
“The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend” – The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton
At first the glimpses we’re given invite us to pay closer attention to the intricate details of a human hand or an ear. Marianne studies what she can see. Committing it to memory. The camera is Marianne’s gaze, it is her dark eyes that we see through. We are invited to study Héloïse as though she is also our subject. But when, on their first walk, Héloïse runs towards the cliffs only to stop just shy and turn around, we finally see her for the first time. She gazes back at Marianne.
From here those glimpses become more intimate. The looks are gentle and subtle and beautifully shot. The acting is sublime. But after Marianne reveals her true reason for being there and unveils her portrait, Héloïse seems disappointed at the lifeless image that lies on the canvas. There are rules of portraiture, and it seems quite obvious what this means. Women are rendered inanimate. Objects to be possessed. With Marianne due to leave along with the countess, Héloïse agrees to pose for Marianne. And with her mother away, Héloïse and Marianne can finally see each other fully.
“When you’re observing me, who do you think I’m observing?”
For a few days they are able to live freely, and as their relationship develops, Héloïse asks “do all lovers believe they’ve invented something?”
This line perfectly captures what it is to discover love. The excitement. The newness of it.
Theirs is a relationship rooted in the intensity of the artist-subject dynamic, but without the classic male gaze. There is no artist and his muse here. There are no men here. The women play cards and read Greek mythology together. And the unwanted pregnancy of the maid-servant Sophie is simply just another moving part of a whole world invisible to men. One filled with the daily sacrifices of women throughout the ages, hidden in the background. It is modest and restrained. It is quiet.
The film itself is quiet. Only broken by the scratch of charcoal on paper, the sweep of a paintbrush or the crackling of firewood. It makes it all the more powerful when music does burst through.
“One who awakens gradually out of a dream, a delicious, grotesque, impossible dream…feel again the realities pressing into her soul” – The Awakening – Kate Chopin
As their affair comes to its inevitable conclusion, romanticism meets reality, and we are snapped out of a lover’s dream, left with the images and fragments of memory and an achingly beautiful, devastating final scene.
Author rating: 9.5/10