LFF 2019: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

The framing of the female gaze

Passion rages deep within Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, burning down outdated male perceptions of female love and creative expression. For centuries the female form has been artistically presented through the male gaze and Sciamma places a woman behind the easel to challenge that convention.

Sciamma’s previous films have been rooted in the modern day, largely focussing on self-discovery and the emotional and physical battles that come with it. And while the era is shifted back to the 18th century in her fourth feature, it’s a theme that remains firmly in place.

Renowned painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), has been secretly tasked to spend six days on a remote Brittany island to create a portrait of the soon-to-be-wed Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The large, sparsely furnished house belongs to Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino) who wants the painting completed before her daughter is sent to Milan for marriage.

Marianne isn’t the first artist to attempt this portrait – hence the secrecy – and she slowly crafts the painting when not in the presence of Héloïse. Her time is spent watching her subject, while quietly being seen in return, and a deep longing between the two women begins to emerge.

The arc of their affair is represented through Marianne’s artistic process, which starts as a sketch and is gently layered with every stroke. “How do you know when it’s finished?” asks Héloïse when staring at her own canvassed image. “We don’t. At some point we just stop,” replies Marianne.

That ending is laid out from the very beginning of the film, with the story told in recollection by the painter. Yet, while brief, it’s a relationship that will shape all others they experience in years to come. The connection they find with each other offers a sense of freedom they have yet to enjoy. Marianne’s artistic boundaries are defined by a male-dominated industry. Héloïse has been raised to accept the inevitability of an arranged marriage.

We also see it when house servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) has a personal issue to resolve. Class and status disappear and are replaced by the support she needs to maintain her autonomy. A key scene revolves around a discussion by the three women about the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice sees them give their own interpretation of its meaning. It ties into the ghostly aspirations repeatedly seen by Marriane of Héloïse wearing her wedding dress, which gathers more meaning as time moves on.

Working for the first time with DP Claire Mathon, Sciamma focusses on the faces of her two leads with intimacy and precision. Great use of light softens one against the other and while Marianne is the worldlier of the two, her lover’s fierce intelligence is shielded behind a protective frown. It seems pointless trying to place one performance above the other, as both Merlant and Haenel are in superb form. Their characters undergo a role reversal of sorts come the end, and it’s the merging in the middle that ultimately defines them.

The two actresses are frequently captured on the beach front in shots that are reminiscent of a beautifully framed oil painting, and there are countless moments deserving of their own gallery-hung canvasses. Music is used sparingly but is wholly effective when it does appear. The first time occurs around a local camp fire, building into an eerie chorus of female voices that feel like they echo across the final act. An orchestral crescendo closes out the film, but tellingly, it’s the character’s relationship with the piece that gives it real poignancy.

The lack of score only further emphasis how this is a film about looking and being seen. Thanks to Sciamma, she shows us two women who discover the true meaning of that in a way that profoundly changes their view of themselves and the world around them.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire plays at the London Film Festival and is released in select UK cinemas on February 28, 2020.

You can read more of our LFF coverage right here.

Steven Sheehan

Updated: Oct 13, 2019

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