Portrait of a Lady on Fire (French: Portrait de la jeune fille en feug.) is a 2019 French historical romantic drama film written and directed by Céline Sciamma, starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel.
Here's a long note on a French film available on Amazon Prime, in case you haven't already seen it. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE's certain monogamy of intense emotion, makes for a quiet, alert watch. Igniting several levels of imagination, memory making, politics, history and the present. For me, it was also the best piece of cinema watched in lockdown-in-unlock mode in 2020.
Portrait of time and possibility on fire
The first scene comforts straightaway, as the opening flashback scene confirms to a viewer that whatever happened, she made it, got through it, lasted, lived.
This big screen film was sadly watched by me on the phone, yet the film moves like a still life painting, after painting. Plus a sort of natural, long term lockdown in 90 % of the action here, crackling immersively like an indoor fireplace, as three to four human beings have to hang with each other. Make something of their initially forced time together in this left to itself, somewhat undusted massive multi-BHK of another era. Several kinds of sparks of course begin to fly, but wait.
The second scene of the film takes you straight to the glorious outdoors. (Several holiday sighs happen) It opens with a woman artist traveling through a turbulent current-on-sea on a rowboat. In a scene unmarked by any signage of where or when, this looks like a period film without an obvious period. She is dropped off the coast, as soaking wet as her box of canvas, she is then let in, via the kitchen.
The artist, who goes by the name of Marianne (Noémie Merlant; did the director purposely drop the surname?) spends day one, drying herself and her canvasses, at a bonfire, alone. She also lights up a pipe and loafs this darkened, empty space of massive staircases and shuttered French windows. Where everything seems covered up and forgotten. Be it the piano or a dumped portrait. The artist Marianne meanwhile finds, she has limited access to the client, light, hospitality and is informed quickly by the mother of the woman she is here there to paint, she has limited time for this freelance assignment as well. On day two, she gets to work on what she came here to do, to paint the portrait of a lady.
We then see Marianne chaperoning Heloise, played full on by actress Adele Haenel, escorting her on walks out to an often stormy, raging seaside. The slightly tedious mind game that unfolds in the first 45 minutes, evokes a tragic hint of Heloise’s sister, who died under mysterious circumstances and Heloise is now to be married off to a Milanese gentleman in her stead. Except Heloise struggles with wanting more out of life. Be it running toward the cliff to feel the wind or wanting to swim for once in the sea and will likely discover that all choices can be hard. But you wish you could make some of them over the others.Taking her time coming to terms with the inevitable and yet taking the moment on. (Am sure, many of us have wanted to somehow bypass the inevitable wait this pandemic has thrust upon humanity’s own sense of wellbeing and basic good health. Or that sense of feeling utterly cornered by something bigger and unnamed)
Whether one has exposure to gender studies, Western philosophy, psychoanalysis, film theory or just a sense of the charisma of the cinematic, what one will see, with her back to the camera, is a co-heroine who seems plain haughty. She is spending the first chunk of film, rebelling in a covered cape. Not letting you in, but if attentive, you can sense how Heloise’s aristocratic life is rejecting the gaze of how society and another era is meant to see her. The gaze of only appearance as reality. In Berger’s sense of perspective in European art. Or in Sartre’s sense of becoming an object, with how others in society perceive us. You know this is not an invitation to the slick beauty of a Bond movie’s female lead entrance, a trope, often limited formula for a certain male gaze, internalized by generations of commercial cinema watchers. Not very different I am guessing from the highbrow portrait painters and rasiks of high society of another era, who would show the beauty of the woman in a portrait, but did it matter who she uniquely was, as long as the portrait met the conventions of the art of the day? An idea that also men seemed to have decided for everybody. Same to similar, both visual worlds?
So the first glance back when Heloise does turn in the direction of the camera, remains inscrutable, but one senses simply, a loaded prehistory. The film of course manages its early silences with a bit of conversation. (This alone can be why it felt like a solitude-friendly watch.The silences will take its own bittersweet time to turn over. Perhaps like women’s rights have. Or like love can. And this pandemic continues to.)
Marianne, coming from a space of greater apparent freedom of movement, is also constrained by her own received conventions and ideas of art. Soon that first portrait she makes, is challenged by Heloise as one that shows no spark of recognition. Of depth, of individuality. Of an inner life. Either of the painted or the painter’s own mind. This is where the movie also begins to feel not like a cranky, cloistered retelling of a past reality, but a compelling invite to breathe body and eye to living and painting. In the now and then.
While the film gets the emotional pitch of an immutable-for-its-time congestion so bang on, it doesn’t bore you with the cliché of costumeitis. In what is a fab inversion of a period drama, the protagonists pretty much wear two gowns. One, for the outdoors for extra cover for coastal winds and one while posing as painter or the painted. (Who wouldn’t bond with the dressing down in lockdown eh?)
Several interviews with director Celine Sciamma on YouTube, inform us that working with a sociologist specializing in women painters in France in the 18th century, this film reworks a forgotten history of women artists traveling to do portraits. Women critics writing on the works of other women. When the male painters could be masters and in popular memory, the woman at best, was muse to the male artist, this film attempts to puncture, just this flat museyness.
Returning to the flow of the movie, the film’s emotional power goes silent, verbal and physical all at once, by now. Of two women who really begin talking to each other frankly. You see Heloise turn from this angry, broody, wilful woman to a playful, curious one who ends up saying exactly what she thinks. Reveling in company she likes. Who asks Marianne about music and if she has painted nude men. Marianne too begins opening up in this unfolding warmth, a reflected glow which tests her own received ideas of art and love head on. Mutually, they gently inject imagination and agency into a well-known Greek classical myth. They face an abortion together and find a wilful way to memorialize this forgotten history into sketch and visual tale. Reminding us, that because this was not recorded by time, does not take away its happening. As the dialogue grows, we see a gentle flirting, two terrific actresses eating into their roles with an ambivert’s relish and the stirring of desire between them. Hope walks on unspoken terms here and the rest is ache.
Without too many spoilers of the actual love story, what blossoms is not fatalism of a future marriage, not a stewing of what they can’t change, but an agency, a cinema, focused on creation of moment after moment. Like lovers anywhere, creating their own mini-world. Each one observing the other, wanting to be with the other with a full on sharing, beginning to care, having fun, feeling jealous, regret and yet given their limited time, fully living the moment, present between them.
While all along, completing that darned portrait in six eventful days. Which by now, has got several shots at feeling more and more like the person, the painter set out to paint. More real and alive to each other.
While this piece of cinema can easily be IMDBed into a lesbian romance category, it has something which several great love stories signal – cojourneying, an emotional tug, a depth of sudden connect and of course some great chemistry. But in flicking off any sense of sacrifice, of domination, of excessive outer conflict, with an internal agency of charm, mood, idiosyncrasy and some terrific acting by the duo, it flips and somewhat levels the field. Along with its political parts, giving us the most underarm erotica ever.
A love worth loving, for its own sake. A love that both women take to their future, quite different lives.
We have known, this film is a flashback, as an artist-teacher is teaching her students, who ask her about a certain painting in the opening scene of the film. Marianne’s straightforward answer now rises in all its embers - Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Offering us at second glance, a prem patra to historical awareness of a whole band of women painters, but also giving them a today of retro-fitted love. Ocean Vuong’s line from a poem, Kissing in Vietnamese, ‘My grandmother kisses as if history never ended’ leaps in flames here.
Giving this languorously crafted film, an explosively deceptive ending - Love is the story. Or as the haunting chant from the cloisters in the film sings, there’s no escape.
So rare for craft, heart and a sense of the social to sing together, like it does in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Tisha Srivastav, is an Assistant Professor in Film & Media Studies at Ashoka University. She received her Masters Degree in Global Media and Post-National Communication from School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London. She has been a practicing journalist for over 24 years.