Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portait of a Lady on Fire movie still Celine Sciamma

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the critically acclaimed French film written and directed by Céline Sciamma (also known for Girlhood, Tomboy and the screenwriter of the award-winning animation My Life as a Zucchini), is engrossing and beautiful. It tells the story of a 19th century portrait painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) who is commissioned to paint the a young woman from a wealthy family, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) so the portrait can be sent to her suitor in Milan, sealing the marriage deal. Héloïse does not want to be married and has hampered previous attempts for her portrait to be painted, so her mother La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) has hired Marianne and instructs her she must pose as a companion rather reveal her true purpose, painting only in secret. It’s not giving away any more than has been revealed in promotional material to say a relationship develops between the two young women, and this becomes their love story. And while that is a good story in itself, the genius of this movie is how it works so adeptly on so many different levels, each supporting and complementing the others. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not only a love story, it is also a story about art and creativity, about art’s power to move the spirit and capture something beyond the visible. It is a story about women, particularly in the 19th century, the lives they inhabit behind closed doors, the alliances and friendships of women who have no other freedoms. And it is a story about that lack of freedom and what that means, about the economic and political necessity of marriage for women of that era (and all eras prior to the contemporary one), and having to find your freedoms within your confinement. All of these threads are eloquently followed throughout this film. Some of these same themes were also woven through Little Women, albeit in different ways, which also made that film so engrossing, but I have yet to write about that (I will soon).

Cinematographically this film was breathtaking. It was so rich and textured. The vast French coastline where it was filmed is as sensuous and textured as the story, with its lush green cliff tops, dramatic cliff faces, yellow sandy beaches and blue, blue ocean. The night scenes in candlelight were so beautiful, making all the women of the house all look like finely rendered oil paintings, their skin so buttery and perfect you wanted to reach out and touch them. Technically speaking, I’m not sure if it was actually only lit with candle light. I suspect it was subtly enhanced with other lighting as it didn’t have the same exposure issues other films have had when attempting this, but I could be wrong. I couldn’t find a reference when writing this one way or another.

This is a wonderful film, which should have been put forward for the Oscars this year by France, but instead they chose the (perhaps more commercial) Les Misérables. It’s on in independent cinemas across the country right now, but it has been showing since Boxing Day and sessions are starting to dwindle, so don’t wait too long. This is definitely one worth seeing on the big screen.

More below, but with spoilers.

Entering the world of women, the creative imagination and other thoughts

I want to start by noting the superb writing of this film, which can clearly be seen in the first five minutes. At the very beginning of this film, in a wonderfully written sequence that tells us so much within a few simple shots, we see everything we need to know to begin the story. We start with seeing the portrait of a lady on fire, which does not reappear through the rest of the film, although we do see its inspiration. Within these introductory scenes we understand this painting, the woman on fire, has great emotional significance for our protagonist. We also get a quick understanding of who she is. Not just an art teacher, and likely artist, she is someone who has to rely entirely on herself. When her belongings are accidentally tipped into the sea on the way to shore, the boatman does not move a muscle to help her and Marianne, with only enough hesitation to take off her cloak, dives overboard to retrieve them.  We also know she is expected in this house where she arrives late at night, now sopping wet, and can assume he has been commissioned to paint a portrait. 

When Marianne enters this household, she enters a space entirely inhabited by women. After the boatman, we don’t see another man until near the very end of the film, when the boatman returns. This is a world that is protected from the outside gaze, and yet also where the women are free to create their own world, direct their own gaze at the object of their desire (not to mention create their own music, notably in the scene on the beach), and yet they are cut off from everything else, at least within the narrative of the film. There is a gentle understanding between the women. Marianne, Héloïse  and the maid Sophie spend their time together helping each other, admiring each other’s work, taking care of business by helping Sophie abort the unintended child she is in no position to have. Even Héloïse’s mother La Comtesse is not portrayed as a villain. She is simply a mother who wants the best for her daughter, and herself along with it. She understand the necessity of marriage for women, and believes her daughter will have a better life, with rich experiences in a more sophisticated place like Milan. Marriage is simply what women have to do, and La Comtesse was probably in a similar situation to her daughter many years ago.

The creative process is explored in this film and is an important theme. We see the technical process of creating a portrait, the sketching, the layering of paint to create shapes of shadow and light, the finishing highlights and touches that eventually blend together to form a lifelike portrait, and Marianne is clearly skilled at this. In those days painting was a trade like any other, one which Marianne learnt from her father. But it is through painting Héloïse, and Héloïse’s own critque of the painting, that she starts to consider painting as an artform, as a way to depict something beyond the visible, a truth, emotion, meaning. Something that is beyond the technical skill required to layer paint onto canvas and create a likeness. This same idea, except in relation to writing, in the film Little Women, but I’ll talk about that in more detail in a later post. Art also has the power to crack open the veneer of a person, reach to their heart, which is something that is said (or shown) about both music and painting in different ways and a few times over through the course of this film. It is the emotional process of breaking the world open, setting it on fire, which we can’t necessarily see with our eyes, but can be captured by artworks. So while the lady on fire of the title, certainly refers to Héloïse and her desire for Marianne (which literally sets her aflame as she starts at her across a fire on the beach), it is also Marianne who is on fire because she is realising the true artist within for the first time and beginning to understand what it means to paint the fire within, the essence of a person.

This film is, of course, also a story of love and passion. In some (limited) ways it reminded me of another favourite film of mine Call Me By Your Name, in that it is sensual and highly charged but not explicit, and I think it keeps its charge because of that. And it is also a story that, while it has a sad ending for the lovers, it is not a sad story, it is not a tragedy. In both films one of the lovers is not able to stay in that relationship because it is a same-sex relationship and it wouldn’t be accepted in their world, while the other has no such barriers. In both films the protagonists carry the memory of their love with them into their future, sad for what is gone, but happy for what has been. This is not a tragic story. Marianne, like Elio, is heartbroken but happy to have loved Héloïse, smiling at the memory as Elio gradually does looking into the fire in that epic final shot of Call Me By Your Name.

Finally, towards the end of the film when Marianne is at the exhibition displaying one of her paintings under her father’s name (presumably because she wouldn’t have her work accepted under her own name), it is not without irony that this film, a story of women, got bumped out of the running for the Oscars, although it must be said it has received a lot of love from other awards and critics globally. And much like Little Women, where Jo March also has to compromise in order to have her work published because it is a ‘women’s story’ (whatever that means), and all the while Greta Gerwig was entirely overlooked at the Golden Globes despite her beautiful and extraordinary film (we’ll wait to see if she gets some recognition in the Oscar nominations). So while both these stories are set in the 19th Century, with women’s worlds and stories and talent being rejected, overlooked and ignored by the wider world, maybe times haven’t changed all that much after all.