As a historical romance between two women set on an island in Brittany, Portrait of a Lady on Fire sounds like standard prestige-picture fare: a stately tale of burning desire and repression, with unsubtle parallels to our own time. But even if Céline Sciamma's film teems with lustful glances and pointed critiques of marriage and patriarchy, it's infinitely more interesting, sensuous, and arresting than that description makes it sound. With its overt feminism and depiction of the burgeoning identity of a young female artist, the film inevitably conjures recent fare like The Souvenir and Greta Gerwig's Little Women, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the most compelling and quietly radical among them: an enigmatic film about the battle waged between realism and expressionism.
In many ways, the character of Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is an independent spirit, less confined by patriarchy than the oppressed women we might see in a Douglas Sirk melodrama. The daughter of a famous painter in the late 19th century, Marianne is a rising portraitist in her own right; when we first see her, she's teaching painting to a class of young women, with the ensuing film presented as her bittersweet flashback. But she too is at the whims of the men surrounding her, as revealed when she's transported over sea by a glowering male rower who never says a word, leaving her to dive into the water to recover her painting supplies when they fall overboard.
Marianne is on her way to a remote villa, having been commissioned to paint a portrait of a young noblewoman named Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Marianne is told almost immediately that previous attempts to paint Héloïse's portrait have been disastrous; the previous (male) painter was turned away after only one attempt. In a striking moment, we see the portrait that he attempted to create of Héloïse, in which her face is violently scratched away, leaving only a ghostly blur.
The moment in which we're introduced to Héloïse is one of the most startling in recent cinematic memory: Marianne approaches her as she descends a staircase, and we view Héloïse from the back via Marianne's POV. We expect Héloïse to turn dramatically, as other movies might introduce their protagonists, but suddenly she runs from the cavernous room, exploding into sunlight, the camera tracking quickly behind her. It isn't until she arrives at a seaside cliff (where we expect she might attempt suicide, as her sister has done) that Héloïse turns to face the audience, a defiant stare toward us and, more importantly, toward Marianne.
Héloïse has been betrothed to a Milanese businessman, and her planned portrait is meant to be a wedding present for her soon-to-be-husband. She enjoys none of the relative freedom that Marianne has: she has only recently left a convent, only to be thrust into another kind of servitude. Her outrage at having to pose for portraits as a prelude to her captivity is vividly felt, and while it is certainly an offshoot of her undesired marriage, it is also an expression of her belief that her true essence (or anything's true essence) can't be captured by a mere portrait; the fluidity of her feeling and emotion can't be contained within a still image.
Marianne's first attempt to paint Héloïse (in secret and based only on memory, as she initially attempts to paint her subject covertly) goes predictably awry: after discovering the true reason for Marianne's arrival, Héloïse accuses her of betrayal, causing the painter to destroy her own creation (in much the same manner as her predecessor's). But to Marianne's surprise—as well as that of Héloïse's mother (Valeria Golino)—Héloïse agrees to pose for her new painter, shutting thoughts of her impending wedding out of mind.
Of course, there are ulterior motives for both Marianne's desecration of her own painting and Héloïse's capitulation as a subject of portraiture: they long to be in each other's presence. The passion between them is obvious from the start, but it's refreshing to see a movie in which love between two women is treated as a matter of fact, not as a sensation or an ordeal (as films like Carol or Blue is the Warmest Color might do).
Indeed, after Héloïse's mother leaves the villa for several days, the film consists almost entirely of the two lovers, who are free to indulge their intimacy, and a female servant named Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), the three of them existing in an almost edenic state of womanhood. Even then, though, their social subjugation is explicit, as Sophie is left to deal with an unwanted pregnancy, visiting an old woman and healer on the island who provides a holistic abortion, free from the strictures of a male-dominated medical profession. (The abortion scene is both tactful and devastating; much of it takes place offscreen, but we observe Sophie's face in close-up as an infant rolls on the bed next to her, not so much a recrimination as a tender irony. The moment is a telling contrast to the brutal shock value of the abortion scene in the Ukrainian film The Tribe, for example.) As Marianne and Héloïse support Sophie throughout her abortion—or, just as movingly, when Sophie suggests a natural remedy for Marianne's menstrual pain—we see a depiction of female solidarity that is both unspectacular and quietly radical. A more self-congratulatory feminist film like Gerwig's Little Women, despite that movie's undeniable pleasures, loudly declares the obvious fact that women are human beings with minds and souls; Portrait of a Lady on Fire, on the other hand, delivers infinitely more nuance and humanism without needing to resort to didacticism.
Another inevitable comparison arises to last year's The Souvenir: both films meticulously portray the burgeoning of a young female artist's creative identity. Most remarkable in The Souvenir are the scenes in which Julie splices 16mm film on a small Steenbeck editing machine in her apartment; such moments turn filmmaking into an intimately personal act, as Julie seems to fabricate her own memory and identity by piecing images together. Similarly in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Marianne embraces her sexuality as well as her creative vision as she continues to perfect her vision of the woman she loves. But it isn't only a one-way transaction, as Héloïse makes clear; she makes the point that, as Marianne observes her from behind her easel, so too does Héloïse analyze Marianne from her position as a model, deciphering the quirks and compulsions that constitute her personality. Such scenes equate the creative process with the act of falling in love, making Portrait of a Lady on Fire both stunningly beautiful and achingly humane.
It's telling that the painting we see in the opening scene—the titular portrait that sets the entire plot in motion—isn't a realistic image of Héloïse, but a cryptic and evocative scene of her standing on a beach at night, the hem of her dress engulfed in flames (an image that carries special emotional weight for Marianne, as the movie makes clear). It isn't an objective and realistic portrait of Héloïse that most encapsulates her, but a distant and semi-fictitious portrait that captures her passion, her indignation. The essence of any human being or state of mind is not objective realism or outright surrealism, the movie argues, but somewhere in between: a feverish state between real life and torrid fantasy, in which most people perpetually exist. The film itself charts a similar progression, beginning with relatively placid and naturalistic imagery, but moving toward intensely erotic close-ups and haunting visions of Héloïse donning a pale white wedding dress, as though it's her funeral shroud. Most movies occupy this middle ground between utter realism and complete abstraction, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire makes this tenuous balance overt and surprisingly self-reflexive. Far from a stolid love story with the venerable trappings of historical drama, this is a film that engages with the very nature of cinematic form: it's wondrously poetic at its core, questioning the interplay between still and moving images, between the realism of Bazin and the expressionism of Cocteau.
Inevitably for a movie so concerned with visual form, this is a thrillingly beautiful experience. Sciamma and her cinematographer, Claire Mathon, made the decision to shoot digitally instead of on 35mm, believing that more ably evoked the nuance of the actresses' performances and the complex light of the interior spaces. It's a testament to the fact that film is not inherently superior to digital, and vice versa; obviously it's just a matter of how you utilize the form, and the entire crew deserves credit for evoking a particular visual aesthetic with astonishing precision. Portrait of a Lady on Fire has maybe the most vivid irises I have seen onscreen, deep brown with flecks of fire and icy blue the color of a glacial sea; we could watch these characters watch each other for hours on end.
On that note, the film boasts two mesmerizing performances, invoking one of the thrills of cinema that's too rarely accomplished today: the excitement of seeing larger-than-life movie stars in opulent close-up. Merlant and Haenel don't simply play two women in love; they play dynamic, turbulent characters whose histories we begin to glean, who fleetingly know each other but barely plumb the depths of each other's complexity. One could argue that the film goes on a bit too long, ending with a prolonged close-up that doesn't make much sense given the characters' proximity and point-of-view. But to argue as much would be to neglect the pleasure of watching actors embody the role of modern-day idols. The myth of Eurydice and Orpheus is evoked at one point to conjure the ultimate story of thwarted love. It's appropriate: Portrait of a Lady on Fire creates a tale of love, loss, beauty, and art so majestic it's almost mythical.
Premiere: May 19, 2019 (Cannes Film Festival)
US Release: February 14, 2020
US Distributor: Neon
Director: Céline Sciamma
Producer: Bénédicte Couvreur
Writer: Céline Sciamma
Music: Jean-Baptiste de Laubier, Arthur Simonini
Cinematography: Claire Mathon
Editor: Julien Lacheray
Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino, Christel Baras, Armande Boulanger, Guy Delamarche, Clément Bouyssou