Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire Burns Brightest at Its Most Still

What’s most stirring about Céline Sciamma’s film is the lack of artifice in Héloïse and Marianne’s feelings for one another.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Photo: Neon

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a taxonomy of gazes that’s also, for better and worse, a discourse on them. This sweeping portrayal of a romance doomed to brevity asks how to memorialize an image, but also how to keep it eternally alive. Assertive in its belief that committing to every moment is the only way to consecrate it to memory, the film is ingeniously structured around a painting that will only beget tragedy.

Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a young painter who’s hired to spend a week on an estate on a rocky island off the French coast of Brittany in order to produce a portrait of Héloïse (Adéle Haenel), who’s set to be wed to a wealthy man in Milan. The artist arrives at the house soaking wet, having rescued her blank canvases from a roiling sea. She’s housed in an unused reception room full of covered furnishings, and is warned by Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino), an Italian countess, that she’s been brought into the home under false pretenses.

Héloïse enters the film cloaked in darkness, hidden from view until a guest of wind blows the hood off her coat off and she turns her head back to gaze at Marianne. Sciamma adds further gothic trappings in her lengthy introduction of Héloïse, who refuses to sit for her portrait, thus forcing Marianne to paint her from memory. Moreover, Héloïse is days away from having been removed from a convent after the death of her older sister. Marianne is meant to befriend her, protect her from her grief or any destructive impulses, and simultaneously study her in order to complete the portrait that, if it pleases her Milanese suitor, will cement Héloïse’s marriage.

Héloïse and Marianne’s gazes frequently intersect in the film. Marianne and Héloïse are most often filmed from the shoulders up, centered in the frame. Their glances toward one another are also looks straight into the camera. Claire Mathon’s cinematography establishes Héloïse as a madeline; her looks are furtive but indelible. It’s clear that Marianne is drawn to her, but Sciamma amplifies the drama of their courtship by setting Héloïse up as a flight risk, always prone to potentially hurl herself into the surf or off the untamed cliffs of the French coast.

This characterization is at odds with the equanimous relationship that ensues between the two twentysomething women, who navigate the class and gender constraints of society in the latter half of the 18th century. Marianne is a cosmopolitan student of her craft, bound by rules established by a string of male masters. By contrast, Héloïse’s life is more tightly controlled. For one, she loves music but has never heard an orchestra—the film, with two extraordinary exceptions, is devoid of a musical score, relying on the snap of firewood and crush of ocean waves for sonic atmosphere—and her commitment to a life of celibacy and solitude has, without her consent, become a life bound to partnership with a stranger. What the two share is passion and curiosity, and they explore and interrogate one another’s preconceptions.

The film is right to be obsessed with the faces of its two leads. Merlant’s expressions have a rare immediacy, as she seems to digest sights and thoughts with alacrity, while Haenel reveals herself more carefully, never making her intentions or impressions known until she’s ready to. Seated across a room at the height of their passion, Héloïse makes clear to Marianne that she’s no mere subject, but also a woman gleaning information from the person she’s staring at.

Sciamma isn’t out to question the gaze, but to point out that one is always met by another, and what’s most stirring about her film is the lack of artifice in Héloïse and Marianne’s feelings for one another. They’re uninterested in control or power, both searching for a sense of truth amid the artificial, patriarchal strictures they exist in. The film frustrates when it feels compelled to elucidate those struggles in words, or through a hokey flashback structure (that, it should be said, yields to an ecstatic final shot). Sciamma’s script has more than a handful of dazzling turns of phrase, but it’s also unnecessarily keen to give some present-day relevance to a romance that’s assuredly timeless. Where her previous films (Girlhood, Tomboy) have excelled in situating their protagonists in complex, sometimes hostile societies, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is at its most beguiling and probing when the rest of the world feels far away.

 Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adéle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino  Director: Céline Sciamma  Screenwriter: Céline Sciamma  Distributor: Neon  Running Time: 121 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2019

Christopher Gray

Christopher Gray is a film programmer at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. His writing has also appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes.

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