In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, there’s a moment where the characters discuss the fate of Orpheus and Eurydice. Sophie, the third wheel, argues, why would Orpheus turn around when he was told not to or he would lose his love? I like Marianne’s explanation, “He chooses the memory of her. That’s why he turns. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.” Like Orpheus, Marianne knows Héloïse is not hers to keep. She must get married or choose her sister’s fate. And Héloïse acknowledges this, releasing Orpheus’s blame, “Perhaps she was the one who said, Turn around.” Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a powerful, hypnotic film full of where passion slowly blooms, beauty cannot be restrained and a forbidden love lives on in only memory.
Céline Sciamma’s story centers around a young portrait painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), sent to a remote island to paint a young woman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) before she is married. Marianne is the second painter summoned, Héloïse’s mother tells her that Héloïse refused to pose for the first one, as she opposes the marriage. Héloïse is also the second bride, her older sister so strongly opposed the marriage she jumped off one of the island’s high cliffs. Now Héloïse is told that Marianne will be her walking companion. Marianne must study Héloïse on their walks and paint her by memory in secret.
The deception is only the first act of the film. When Marianne finishes the portrait from memory, she shows it to Héloïse and confesses her deception. The portrait is too perfect, it could be any woman with Héloïse’s features. It lacks life, Héloïse’s fierce flash of anger, the tired red eyes bagged with grief. Marianne destroys the painting and to her surprise, Héloïse agrees to pose for her. Her mother will be away and they have until she returns to finish the portrait.
What unfolds is a mixture of an affair between artist and muse, Héloïse’s first taste of womanhood and her last taste of freedom before marriage. The slow burn, hypnotic tension between Marianne and Héloïse rises to romance and brings forth a sexier love story than most films can muster between heteosexal leads. Yet, there are no sex scenes, unless you count the couple lying in bed, breasts exposed with Marianne drawing secret portraits in a book, using a perfectly placed mirror.
Their portrait scene where Marianne tells Héloïse all the little nuances she has noticed about her and Héloïse shooting back saying, “When you’re observing me, who do you think I’m observing?” put the traditional artist/muse relationship on it’s head. Usually those relationships are very one sided, the man being powerful, the woman the silent idol. But here, Héloïse’s spunk and the fact that they’re both women make it equal.
During the mother’s absence, the maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) reveals that she is pregnant. Marianne and Héloïse help her to rectify the situation, first by herbs and exercise, later by visiting an older woman who preforms a 18th century abortion. As Sophie lays back during the procedure, a baby no older than 2 holds her hand and plays with her. Later, Marianne paints a recreation of the scene, with Héloïse posing as the practitioner. The symbolism in these acts, these people around Sophie in her moment of need is astounding.
I’ve never seen a film so full of raw, powerful feminism and I love it. Along with the obvious subjects, the film is completely driven by women and their relationships together, whether as lovers, friends, artist/subject, mother/daughter. The actors bear natural beauty, even displaying body hair that rarely graces Hollywood films without a grimace. There are only a few men in the film, none of them have important speaking roles. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautiful, bold and empowering and enthralling film that I hope inspires more female filmmakers to bring their stories to the world.
“It’s a life that has advantages. There’s a library. You can sing or hear music. And equality is a pleasant feeling.”