Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

1. A Portrait

Portrait of a Lady on Fire does not propose an alternative history. This is not a lesbian fantasy, coated in the aesthetics of pre-revolutionary France. This is not a cheap attempt at superficially subverting the expectations of a much less progressive time for the sake of contemporary audiences. Director Céline Sciamma is not concerned with such things. She consciously acknowledges the limitations of the time period she chose to work within. Her main characters, the painter Marianne and the lady on fire Héloïse, as much as they point to a future where women are freer and treated with greater dignity, ultimately obey the rules of their time, leading to an inevitability that might strike some as unsatisfying.

Formally, the film flows at the glacial pace of its world, one that is voyaged across by boats, lit by candles, and confined to the pleasures of card games, literary discussion and the occasional fireside gathering. This hushed patience and reservation is carried over in the sex scenes, where Sciamma’s gaze traces the deepest sensualities of a slow kiss, the visible strands of saliva stretching between two lips, and the invisible tension found in each breath, without ever descending into territory that is unnecessarily explicit or provocative (barring one scene involving armpits, premodern drugs and wonderful vaginal allusions). Almost every sequence, with the exception of a few key moments of overwhelming musical performance, is punctuated by an apparent silence.

For all of its lush 8K cinematography, immaculate production and costume design, and the unwavering boldness of Sciamma’s previous work, Portrait can feel surprisingly conservative. But as is the case with any film that is slow and minimalist in nature, the film is trying to isolate something specific. Marianne, Héloïse and their maid Sophie are quite literally isolated on an island, where the film spends most of its runtime, away from men, away from the restrictive conventions of 18th century France, away from any reminder that things will eventually come to an end.

2. Reframed

Portrait is as much a film about absence as it is about the intense presence of what remains. “It’s not that there are no men on the island, it’s just that they’re not in the frame,” Sciamma says in an interview with Film Comment.[1] Even though men are not to be found anywhere onscreen for most of the film’s runtime, the pressures and influence of patriarchal society still serve as major undercurrents for everything that happens.

The portrait that Marianne paints of Héloïse is ultimately meant for her future husband, whose eventual arrival assigns an unavoidable expiration date to their romance. Visions of Héloïse in a blindingly white wedding dress begin to haunt Marianne. Embedded within her trained perspective as an artist is an adopted male gaze, even though she is obviously a woman herself. Watching Héloïse from an increasingly tense distance, as instructed to do so, Marianne is forced to paint a portrait from scattered memories of certain physical traits. It comes out to be a technically refined portrait, albeit one that is stale and lacking in spirit. When Héloïse complains, Marianne insists that there are rules and conventions, most likely determined by those that prevent her from painting more “major” male subjects.

But she is given a second chance, a second portrait, this time with Héloïse posing for her. The shy glares and exchanges are now out in the open, tugging and tightening between a posing stool and a canvas. More than ever, the parallels abound between director and actor, between writer and character, between painter and model. In some sense, Sciamma is in Marianne’s exact position. In the hands of a lesser director, the dynamics between artist and muse, with all of its clichéd and misogynistic baggage, would have gone unexamined, instead giving way to cutesy montages of uncomplicated summer love. It wouldn’t help that Adèle Haenel, who plays Héloïse, was in a relationship with Sciamma.[2]

Fortunately, Sciamma is perceptive enough to understand the role and tradition she has inherited as a director. The parallels between herself and Portrait become deliberate. They are examinations of power and its role in determining whose gaze is guiding the work of art. And the interplay of these two layers of exploration, one unfolding in the plot’s thematic development and the other rooted in Sciamma’s foundational perspective, grants the audience a thorough and tangible demonstration of this power at play.

For Portrait’s first forty-five minutes or so, it may seem that these two layers are not apparent. At the very least, the relationship between them is less present. Among the many audience member reviews I have read, reservation about the film’s first act was a minimal but nonetheless recurrent theme. This is because Sciamma takes her time to flirt, laying the breadcrumbs through a labyrinth of burning stares and terse dialogue, all performed with the keen awareness that the painting needs to be finished for an impending marriage.

Nonetheless, there is that second portrait. It is here that the film clicks into focus, where the breadcrumbs lead to a new center, one that does not sit in the actual center at all, yet to be visited…

3. Refocused

Across the numerous interviews Sciamma gave in support of Portrait, one topic always seemed to emerge, beyond how lovely and empowering being at Cannes must have been: art history. In particular, the very existence of women in art history canon. “Women artists have always existed,” Sciamma says in an interview with Slant Magazine. “They’ve had more flourishing moments, like that time in the mid-18th century when there were a lot of women painters…but mostly women were in the workshop as models or companions. That was their part in artistry, so that’s how they’re told [in cultural narratives].”[3]

Of course, there were a couple female stars in the art world of that time, such as Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Angelica Kauffman, but for the most part that history was hidden as is unfortunately the case with marginalized groups in any era. Dora Maar is always remembered as Picasso’s muse and lover, and not as an artist in her own right. Not only does this present the erasure of an entire group of people and their creative agency, but it also creates a canon of human artistic expression devoid of images of women created by women themselves. The intimacy of a woman’s private life, the desires residing in a woman’s heart, and the sheer physicality of embodying a female body are all gone, determined to be of less value and interest.

The work of contemporary woman researchers counters this trend by highlighting that whoever examines history also presents it. It’s why Sciamma hired an art sociologist to help develop Portrait, so that she could reanimate this process and gain the necessary historical context to create an 18th century woman painter of her own, a microcosm of that neglected history which can now breathe for the audience.

All of this historical and philosophical exercising may seem terribly contrived. Sciamma probably felt so as well, which is why she rooted everything in a very simple principle: desire. The core of Sciamma’s experiment with artist/muse dynamics in Portrait lies in a reformulation of desire’s role in artistic creation, and how it can be transformed from something potentially exploitative into something radically collaborative and empathetic. The key to this transformation is found in both the film’s writing process and its performances. During a Q&A at the Angelika Film Center, Sciamma noted how she took her time in allowing the film to marinate in her mind, taking three years to think before writing a single word. She was in search for a structure, one that could communicate in an implicit way that love always has a future. For her, that structure rested in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Within its tangled webs, Sciamma actually found something quite simple: a film that uses its shape to propose a politic and philosophy of love. It’s a testament to her razor sharp intuition that she is capable of unpacking a film as complex as Mulholland Drive and distilling it to its bare essence. It is this very intuition that made Portrait’s effortlessness possible. All of this research, all of this thinking and all of these structures are motivated by desire. What desire? In Sciamma’s words, it is about “being very, very not indulgent with your ideas. It’s about relying on very high excitement for each scene until you don’t have that excitement.”[4]

Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel understood the same principles. They both walked on set without a single minute of rehearsal under their belt, taking the same risk that their characters do. Sure, Portrait’s imagination exists in concrete objects like the costumes and hairstyles Merlant and Haenel don throughout the film. But the silhouette of a character will never shape up to the authenticity of performance. The moment Sciamma calls action, the moment Haenel makes her first move and the moment Merlant makes her first response are all leaps of faith, a balancing act of freedom and caution, confidence and fear, bound by an artistic understanding of restraint and tastefulness. In an interview with Vulture, Merlant describes the process as one where “you just try to find details, and just feel the details…to fill in, and to hold back things.”[5] Portrait is a film that never feels strained because it knows where its pockets are, having been the product of many years of consideration paired with a flowing, multi-layered intuition of nuance.

As Portrait glides towards its finish and its details are increasingly seeped into, Sciamma leaves us with a devastating closing shot, perhaps one of the best I have ever seen. It’s a shot that feels earned, as though the film’s near two hours of great fluidity, patience and intelligence could have only led to such an ending. The dynamics of muse and artist, of male and female, and that sense of a spontaneous naturalism now implicate the audience. Narratives fade away and characters collapse as we observe Héloïse’s gradual tears with Vivaldi roaring in the background. We are watching an emotion, a performance and a film finding its conclusion. Sciamma has given us her and Marianne’s seat. But instead of an exploitative sense of domination, we are roped into Héloïse’s act of remembering. She refuses to acknowledge us and does so with power. She finally has the agency to make the poet’s choice.

[1] Taubin, Amy. “Interview: Céline Sciamma.”
[2] Handler, Rachel. “The Women Behind Portrait of a Lady on Fire Believe Their Movie Can Save the World.”
[3] Shaffer, Marshall. “Interview: Céline Sciamma on Redefining the Muse with Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
[4] Erbland, Kate. “’Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ Filmmaker Céline Sciamma Is Trying to Break Your Heart.”
[5] Handler.


Works Cited:

Erbland, Kate. “’Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ Filmmaker Céline Sciamma Is Trying to Break Your Heart.” IndieWire, Penske Business Media LLC, 5 Dec. 2019, www.indiewire.com/2019/12/portrait-of-a-lady-on-fire-filmmaker-celine-sciamma-interview-1202193537/.

Handler, Rachel. “The Women Behind Portrait of a Lady on Fire Believe Their Movie Can Save the World.” Vulture, Vox Media Inc., 27 Mar. 2020, www.vulture.com/2020/03/portrait-of-a-lady-on-fire-q-and-a-cline-sciamma-adle-haenel.html.

Shaffer, Marshall. “Interview: Céline Sciamma on Redefining the Muse with Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Slant Magazine, Slant Magazine LLC, 1 Dec. 2019, www.slantmagazine.com/film/interview-celine-sciamma-on-redefining-the-muse-with-portrait-of-a-lady-on-fire/.

Taubin, Amy. “Interview: Céline Sciamma.” Film Comment, Film at Lincoln Center, 1 Nov. 2019, www.filmcomment.com/article/interview-celine-sciamma-portrait-of-a-lady-on-fire/.

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