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Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait de la jeune fille en feu

She burns, as one aflame laid bare by desire

(Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

dir: Céline Sciamma


What a beautiful film. It seems quite simple, really, but it is incredibly intricate and deceptively well done. It’s a lush, romantic story like a few I’ve seen before, but told in such a gentle, aching manner.

I won’t pretend to know anything about the era represented, or painting, or anything about French culture (it’s in French, with whatever subtitles you could possibly choose), but the fundamental elements are relatable to anyone not living on an island off the coast of Brittany. There’s class division, there’s fear of loss of self, the fear that one will never have any freedom to live and breath, the strictures and structures imposed upon women throughout the ages, the ways that society controls women in ways that are never of benefit to women themselves, and the ways in which when they band together, women can be indomitable.

There are very few men in this flick. We see a couple at the beginning, as they row Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to an isolated island, but they don’t play a large part in the proceedings. In trying to get to the island, a crate falls overboard, and Marianne has to jump in to save it, which she does, miraculously without drowning, considering the bulky dress she wears.

This is not the beginning of the film. There’s an opening scene where Marianne, presumably much older, issues instructions to young women drawing in her class. Behind their heads she spies a painting, unexpectedly, and the cool with which she was advising the class dissipates. When asked the title of this forbidden painting, she haltingly delivers the title of the film. You don’t get that every day. Even The Rock doesn’t usually utter the title of the flick in the opening moments of the film’s he’s in: “Looks Like Hobbs & Shaw are going to be kicking ass again!”

But I pointlessly digress. The opening tells us that the painting has some painful significance to the teacher, as she recalls the subject of the painting. That’s why it jumps to the past (Marianne, to be fair, looks no different, but we are to assume she is much younger) where Marianne is commissioned to paint a portrait of a young lady. The purpose of the portrait is for the painting to be sent to a nobleman in Milan who, if he likes what he sees, will wed the young lady.

By “wed” we might as well inscribe “purchase” upon the bill of sale. The large manor has a housekeeper, the young Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who is quiet, but knows and sees all. She tells the painter, warily at first, what tensions there are in the house. The young lady in question, Hélöise (Adèle Haenel) had an older sister, who was the first choice of the Milanese gentleman, but the prospect of an arranged marriage compelled her to throw herself off of one of the conveniently located cliffs.

Hélöise is no more predisposed to either marriage or sitting for her portrait. She is young, but old enough to know what the purpose of such a portrait is. Others have tried before Marianne. A mostly finished painting remains in the quarters allocated to her, where everything seems to be in order except for the complete absence of a face. Marianne’s commission is not only to paint Hélöise, but to do so without her knowledge. She is to pose as her companion for a week, to accompany her for walks near the cliffs, but presumably to also ensure that she not fling herself off.

On their first meeting, Marianne sees her only from behind, glimpsing her blonde hair once the wind pushes her hood back. Hélöise launches herself into a run towards the cliffs, Marianne in panicked pursuit. But Hélöise is not one for annihilation – she wants to fly, not die. The death of her sister saw her pulled from the confines of a convent, where, for once in these kinds of stories, she was actually happy, because she had equality and companionship.

And now she is alone, awaiting being sent elsewhere for a different kind of confinement. She is wary around Marianne, with good reason. Though little is made of it, I would think the artist is a fair bit older (she does not look it, of course), and she has lived a very different life from Hélöise. Marianne is the daughter of a celebrated painter, and though she has learned much from him, contemporary French society doesn’t allow female painters to be taken seriously. They can, of course, take strange commissions from weird aristocrats in order to pay the bills with their skills.

We do not know what happened to the other painter. We only know that they were male, and they failed. Marianne has advantages that might help her succeed in the other’s stead.

They chat, mostly, on the cliffs or on the beach, mostly about the fate that Hélöise dreads, but also about their shared experiences. Hélöise is surly, and unhappy, and she has good reason to be. She is also lonely, though, and craves some semblance of tasting life beyond the narrow confines of what she imagines awaits her.

Marianne spends this time trying to use her substantial skills to reduce Hélöise to her constituent parts, pieces. The art schools, or her father, we presume, taught the rigid knowledge that all that is observable can be reduced to smaller shapes in order to build a convincing whole. Thus can Hélöise’s face be reduced to a square, to a number of lines, to the angles she is expected to embody in order to be reconstructed as a desirable package for the consumer. The consumer, we are told, is the faraway Milanese gentleman we never meet, but the closer consumer is really Hélöise’s mother, the Comtesse (Valeria Golino). She is no tyrant who delights in horse-trading her daughter, but she sees little recourse in expecting the possibility of any other life for her, as it was the same ecosystem that saw her launched from Italy at a similarly young age.

Either “consumer” is looking for a portrait that conforms to, for lack of a more technical term than “the male gaze”, at the very least would be the kind of thing that a dullard aristocrat would find appealing in a potential wife. Bit of cleavage, a come hither look but not too much, nothing to indicate that there is any fire or potential for combativeness in the subject.

So this first painting, constructed in parts and in secret, with dishonest intent, is completed. Marianne has produced the product asked of her. It conforms with her teaching, with her skills, and with what portraiture does in this day and age. But it does not sit well with her that she has deceived Hélöise. She insists to the Comtesse that she confess to the daughter and show it to her before she allows the mother to see it, and if happy with it, send it on its way to Milan. The mother reluctantly agrees.

Needless to say, Hélöise isn’t happy with this twist. Even better, she derides the work, and Marianne’s skills or intentions. We only know that Marianne feels Hélöise’s criticisms are correct because she then attacks the painting with a cloth, effectively destroying it, as an admission that she failed to see Hélöise as she is, or to reconstruct her on the canvas in a meaningful or honest way. To our surprise, and to Marianne’s even greater surprise, Hélöise insists that she will pose for her portrait, and the Comtesse gives them six days or so to make it happen.

Six days…how much can happen in six days. The artist observes the subject, but the subject looks back too. Marianne does these wonderful piercing glances, where she looks back almost like a double take, almost like she doesn’t quite believe that she saw what she saw. And of course Hélöise looks back too, with envy at the freer life Marianne has lived and will live, and with something akin to desire.

How could they not fall in love? With the mother away, the three women in the house – an aristocrat, a painter and a housekeeper – fall into a naturally equal state, where they drink, eat, play cards and read together, class at least temporarily meaning nothing. Sophie, in helping Marianne deal with her period pain, confesses that it has been three months since hers, and they resolve to do something about it since it is not a wanted pregnancy.

This leads to perhaps the strangest and most sublime part of the film. After trying some rudimentary techniques and clumsy methods to induce a miscarriage, they, under cover of night, visit a bonfire on the beach mostly populated by women. A wise woman amongst them tells Sophie she is still pregnant, and should visit her in her hovel in three days’ time. Marianne vows to go with her, as support, when asked.

On the beach, the women are chatting and drinking, including Sophie. And the arrayed women start singing, a disturbing keening sound at first, atonal and almost frightening, but then their individual contributions cohere into a sublime chorus. Women individually doing great, but together, in solidarity, doing something greater, like looking after each other.

It is during this sequence that Hélöise accidentally stands too close to the fire, and the hem of her dress is aflame. She looks down at the flames, and then at Marianne, but she doesn’t seem too concerned. It is the same image we saw at the earliest scene, the painting that Marianne must do at some time in the future in order to capture this moment and what it meant. What a lady on fire actually means to her.

And all the while, over these too few or too many days, Marianne falls more in love the more she tries to see Hélöise, and Hélöise does the same, seeing herself replicated on the canvas in a way that feels most honest, and loving what she sees in Marianne.

They share a number of experiences with each other, all done gently and unselfishly, all meant to be more revealing than just nudity or carnality. Even drugs, for crying out loud, in their desire to fly away from this dismal era of inequality together.

Much earlier on, Marianne introduces Hélöise to a piece of music on a harpsichord that she has heard played by an orchestra, being part of the Summer portion of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, which calls to mind the building sound of a coming summer storm; it’s effect on the insects and creatures of a forest, and Hélöise is in raptures hearing this idea transformed into music. It plays its part in the staggering ending of the film, which is meant to be both aching in its loss, and reassuring that something, even over time, has not diminished in the hearts and minds of these women.

There is a lot which implies, other than the flashback nature, that there is going to be a lot of tragedy for us to deal with. At a certain point the three women read parts of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, specifically the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and argue about its meaning, and Orpheus’s actions and what they meant in terms of dooming Eurydice to the underworld. Orpheus is told by the gods that he will be allowed to take Eurydice back to the land of the living, but only if he can lead her out without looking back at her. So just before they get to the exit of the underworld, he looks back, and she fades away.

So, okay, debating the romantic or moral nuances of his actions could have been something people of a certain class or disposition did for the last 2000 years up until the invention of television because they had nothing else better to do than drink, fuck, and argue about who’s most to blame in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, but the main thing it gives the film here is a haunting image. Marianne randomly, getting towards the end of her time with Hélöise, keeps seeing a ghostly image of Hélöise in her wedding dress, fading to darkness like Eurydice when Orpheus looks back at her. By the third time it happens, I have to say, I thought they were implying something pretty clearly.

The story turns out somewhat differently, a lot differently. I mean, this is a tragic love story, a true romance, if you will, but such a story can exist without everybody going Romeo + Juliet at the end or Bonnie & Clyde.

There is perhaps a different type of death to be feared, not the death of a romance, as in the grief that comes from not being to be with the one you love, but the fear that Hélöise’s soul would be diminished by her life in the patriarchal constraints of the aristocracy. Or maybe, for all intents and purposes, saying goodbye to someone you might never see again for the rest of your life is like selfishly trying to hold on to their image in your mind as they fade into a kind of underworld that is just the diminishment of memory.

Who can say, other than, um, the people that made this flick, and the people who watched this lovely film? It’s such a simple joy and transcendentally masterful story so well told by a group of women who know exactly what they want to say and how to say it.

It feels like a cliché to say that the film is a celebration of womanhood and sisterhood, and passionate love, but it really feels like it is, as well as a long, aching look at a love affair that does not last. And it also has so much to say about art and the artist, and the calculated distance that they are encouraged to maintain that can distance them so much that they no longer understand that which they are trying to depict.

Because the film is not explicit in its depiction of sex between the two, because it’s not aiming for the titillation of a (presumably) hetero crowd, the film doesn’t run the exploitative risks of other films with women protagonists that came to recent prominence like Blue is the Warmest Colour, or South Korean lesbian revenge masterpieceThe Handmaiden, the first one especially. Sciamma’s intention isn’t to turn us on with what they show or do, but perhaps with what they feel and say.

It gives me some pause to note that the director, Céline Sciamma, and one of the lead actors here, being Adèle Haenel, used to be in a relationship together, and though they parted amicably, it is beyond my self-restraint to be able to not draw possible parallels between her own story and the story she crafts with Marianne and Hélöise here. It’s too tempting, too rich for not wondering.

And if I did not love them enough already for crafting such a wonderful film, their protests at the Cesar awards in February of this year at Roman Polanski being given an award, by walking out and yelling “Bravo, la pedophilie!” to celebrate his “achievements” in the past and present, that would have clinched the deal. Everyone involved (except Polanski) should take a deep bow, because they made a masterpiece.

9 times it breaks my heart even to end this review, like it felt at the end of the film out of 10

“When you asked if I had known love, I could tell the answer was yes. And that it was now.” – Portrait of a Lady on Fire