Directed by: Céline Sciamma
Written by: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino
Being seen by another person seems easy enough if one physically can. On that level, it may be simple, but seeing another on a deeper level opens up that person in an unimaginable way. The way it just so happens in this film involves seeing that person enough to capture them in a portrait.
Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives on an island and has been commissioned to draw a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young woman soon to be married off to a man in Italy. The only catch being Marianne needs to pretend to be Héloïse’s walking partner as the young woman refuses to pose for any painter for the portrait. Marianne would then need to paint the portrait through the features she can remember from their interactions.
The beauty captured in this film stands out like no other and does so at every level. Every frame has meaning and a purpose to the story. Every piece of dialogue contains layers that further exhibit a type of love never meant end perfectly but remains beautiful in its limited time. Céline Sciamma has quickly become one of my all-time favorite directors after watching her first three feature films in Water Lillies, Tomboy, and Girlhood. Each one has its own beauties and the struggles the characters face feel unique to them. Their melancholic nature adds to their narratives that create hope. With Portrait of a Lady on Fire, she creates a masterpiece beyond belief.
Sciamma’s writing provides such exquisite dialogue for her characters because she truly understands them. While this film can certainly be qualified as a drama, moments of humor trickle their way through and have even more resonance when they land. Everything said by the characters feels poetic, especially when discussing love. The way Marianne and Héloïse start as characters and develop throughout the film shows acceptance of their feelings despite the world around them. Sciamma has revealed elements of this film land in a personal place for her, which shows in the way the story plays out.
Along with the writing, the visuals provide a beautiful landscape for these characters to explore. The cinematography by Claire Mathon exquisitely captures this French island along with the dangers inherent to Héloïse and her decisionmaking. The island lays out a place where love can be explored and where these two women can roam free and be who they want to be, which leads to one of the major themes of the story being agency.
Taking place in the 18th century, having an agency as a woman could only be a dream. Women did not have the ability to be of their own. Marianne became a well-known painter through her own talent but could only do so because of her father sharing the same profession. That spares her from having to marry some man for the sake of her family. A fate that Héloïse, unfortunately, does not share, as she needs to marry against her wishes. Their futures are tied to the men in their lives because the system set up enforces that idea. Céline Sciamma shifts that idea and creates this film as a way of rejecting the world around them. Throughout the runtime of the film, at most, two men populate the screen and are given very minimal lines. It shows that Sciamma has no interest in the perspectives of men in this story because, for this solitary and limited time, they are not of importance. They may control everything women do in the rest of the world, but the actions taking place on this island belongs to the women. Not only does it serve the story of Marianne and Héloïse, but also of Sophie, the house worker of the estate. She becomes attached to a man unwillingly and her arc includes severing that connection for her own autonomy. Rejecting the powers and the will of men runs through this entire narrative but done so in a manner not incredibly overt but just as resonant.
This film marks the second collaboration of Adèle Haenel with Céline Sciamma, with the first being Water Lilies. They’ve formed an excellent bond in their partnership and her work as Héloïse yielded one of the great performances of the 2010s. The character of Héloïse does not want to accept the path laid out before her of marrying a man because it goes against her will. She refuses to be painted by artists because it will only bring the inevitable of giving her life away. Héloïse starts elusive and protected but then gradually opens up throughout the story. They way Haenel brings raw humanity to this character displays a mastery of her art.
Guiding us through this world and her journey is Noémie Merlant as Marianne. From when she arrives on the island by boat and then first meeting Héloïse, Marianne allows us to take part in what she will experience. Her task to capture Héloïse in the form of a portrait seems easy enough for her in the beginning because of her proficiency as an artist, but her arc revolves around how she sees Héloïse. With her first attempt at capturing her, Marianne looks at her and subsequently paints her in the way a man would want a woman to be presented. Not until she fully realizes the layers and humanity of her muse does she understand to capture who Héloïse has always been. Marianne truly sees her then.
Everything in the story leads to a beautiful romance that has a time limit for the physical but becomes boundless for eternity. One beautifully captured by a female gaze that focuses on the love rather than what men want to see from this story. The initial courting happens through glances that stay for just a bit longer than normal. It all has weight to it and lands perfectly. It shows the beauty and sexiness of consent between two individuals as they undertake this short journey together. A love so pure and passionate that will forever bind them together no matter where they may be.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire serves as a film by women for women in every beautiful conceivable way. A true work of art that has no misplaced frame or awkward line. Everything has its purpose and intention and comes together perfectly. A personal story for the director as she further displays her place as a modern master of filmmaking.