Set in a remote, barely-furnished villa in Brittany, France, battered by winds heavy with the sting of sea salt, there’s a gothic quality at the heart of Portrait of a Lady On Fire. The circumstances that originally bring young painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) here revolve around deception. She’s tasked with painting a portrait of a moderately wealthy Italian woman’s daughter, so that she can be married off to a rich suitor from Milan. The catch? Héloïse – played by Adèle Haenel – is uncooperative, and in mourning for her sister who ended her own life. Marianne must capture her likeness in secret and against her will, under the pretence of being her new walking companion.
Writer-director Céline Sciamma’s latest film could easily be read as a straightforward subversion of the male gaze – critic John Berger’s theory that women constantly “watch themselves being looked at” by men. In portraits, female subjects exist as static likenesses, channelled through the eyes of often-male painters – and, initially at least, Marianne is also painting for the benefit and approval of a man.
Portrait of a Lady On Fire explores ideas around female autonomy and women’s relationship to art as well as love. Though Marianne begins by viewing her subject with a painterly female gaze, this soon shifts into something else – as she looks she is observed in return with equal ferocity. The gazes that Marianne and Héloïse share are complex, increasingly sexually charged and reciprocal. “When you’re observing me,” Héloïse comments, “who do you think I’m observing?” If anything, Portrait of a Lady On Fire flips the male gaze and presents a lesbian gaze instead.
Portrait of a Lady On Fire hinges on this subtlety; this is a gripping 18th Century love story told through stolen glances, paint-smeared fingers, and camera shots that linger just a little too long. Unlike other queer love stories from recent years – the hyper-visual and slightly gratuitous scissor-fest Blue is The Warmest Colour (tellingly filmed by a male director) or the visceral mouth-spitting of Disobedience – Portrait of a Lady On Fire possess crucial restraint. Like the cosy fires in Héloïse’s home, a desperate and impulsive desire burns in each interaction between the pair. “Did you dream of me?” Marianne asks Héloïse, when resisting becomes too much to bear. “No,” Héloïse says. “I thought of you”. These small and meaningful distinctions are key to the narrative. This is not a dreamscape: Portrait of a Lady On Fire revolves around memory and too-brief snatches of time.
Parallel to their central love story, Héloïse and Marianne assist the family’s maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) in dealing with a personal matter in secret, and the trio form a kind of functioning democratic family. Though they face unique challenges, they’re all united by the pain of womanhood. On the beach, where so many of this film’s pivotal conversations take place – the young painter admits what separates her from Héloïse: she will never have to be married to a man against her will, and can work as she pleases thanks to her father’s reputation as an artist. For Héloïse, this is not an option. “You can choose,” she says. “That’s why you don’t understand me.” “I understand you,” Marianne replies.
As with 2017’s Call Me By Your Name, the lovers’ romance unfolds over just a couple of weeks that whizz by all too quickly – as intense as their connection is, it is painfully temporary. Frequently, they discuss the missed early opportunities that cheated them out of valuable days and hours together. Time continually lingers in the shadows despite Marianne and Héloïse’s best efforts to slow it down with psychedelics, rambling walks on a wind-battered beach, and lazy mornings spent in a makeshift bed. Every moment weighs heavy with the need to remember. Like a painter studying a subject and translating their essence onto canvas, they try to memorialise every gesture.
Seeing herself clearly for the first time, Marianne sketches herself so that Héloïse can remember her. The cruelty of memories is that they can never be enough.
And every single frame of this film – Marianne smoking a pipe naked by the fire, the pair locking eyes against a clear blue sky, the heart-wrenching final shot which needs to be seen for itself – is similarly immaculate.
Calling a film perfect often seems like hyperbole. And yet, this is exactly what Portrait of a Lady On Fire is.
- Director: Céline Sciamma
- Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami
- Release date: February 28