My first exposure to Celine Sciama’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019) came in the form of a Twitter clip set to Taylor Swift’s “Cruel Summer” with the ending scene of Sciama’s period drama placed alongside “Call Me By Your Name” (2017)’s final moments of fireplace brooding.
The clip acts as a response to the skeleton of the film as another story about the recollection of an illicit and brief, but monumental love affair.
In literature and film, the sea emanates a seductive call to the Oppressed Woman on the Verge. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” opens with the young painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), being rowed against tumultuous water to an island in Brittany – the camera mimics the rocky boat ride with such realism I had to avert my eyes to avoid secondhand seasickness. Her painting supplies fall overboard and without hesitation, she dives in after them. But she emerges. Marianne has been commissioned by the mother of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) to discreetly produce a portrait of her daughter for a prospective husband in Milan. Héloïse’s sister was originally betrothed to the same suitor, but prior to the events of the movie, she flung herself off a seaside cliff, ending her own life to avoid an unwanted fate. An earlier portrait by another painter was unsuccessful because Héloïse, in a rebuff of the marriage, refused to sit for her portrait. Therefore, Marianne must paint in secret and is presented to Héloïse as a walking companion. Sciama withholds Héloïse’s entrance. The camera follows her cloaked figure from behind as she breaks into a sprint towards the sea. But at the edge of the cliff, Héloïse turns around. The sea gestures to the two women at the heart of the film, but their allure is restrained and they do not succumb to oblivion.
Such restraint is a reflection of the tension between the women’s desires and societal pressure. Sciama tracks their evolving relationship through extended glances and small moments of tenderness. The conflict of external pressure borders the setting of the film but does not enter the frame. In their love story, there is no dramatic scene of outside intervention, storming in and tearing apart star-crossed lovers. In fact, there are virtually no men in the two-hour runtime of the film. Men are unseen in the world of the film, yet their presence is felt in the unsaid between the women. Instead, the detractor exists within both women who are consumed by their entanglement, but ultimately faithful to a sense of obligation. The act of memory is central to the telling of this story. Love is presented not a phase that dissipates with the loss of proximity, but something that’s carried and memorialized–in this case, accessible through art and remembrance. Significantly, Sciama encourages the remembrance of lost love to be without regret.
The film practices minimalism in its ornamentation, but when aspects of cinematization do seep in, the result is tantalizing. There is no score, but incidents of diegetic sound are revelatory and placed with care. Sciama crafts an illumination of the quotidian lives of women. It’s a hauntingly beautiful movie, but there is a sense of frigidity in the decor and costuming that allows the stills to evade the preciousness that often invades period pieces.
Aside from its central romance, the film’s narrative is interested in exploring the process of artistic creation and the dynamic between painter and subject. I’m not saying this movie is the reason I signed up for my painting class this semester, but I’m not not saying that. The artistic process is woven into the bones of the film. Working from memory, Marianne pieces together moments of observation into a delicate rendering of Héloïse. Héloïse is disappointed by this first portrait, a rosy-cheeked testament to the tradition of portrait painting: “The fact it isn’t close to me, that I can understand. But I find it sad it isn’t close to you.” Héloïse is the subject of the portrait, but the work is imbued with Marianne’s gaze. Art is as much a manifestation of the artist’s gaze as it is a depiction of its subject. Marianne smudges the disappointing portrait and begins again, this time with Héloïse as her collaborator. The final wedding portrait becomes informed by the mutual act of looking between the two women. The intimacy of the female gaze as a two-way mirror feels quietly revolutionary.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a story about the memory of a romance. It’s not a tragedy, because Sciama doesn’t depict the loss of physical proximity and inevitability of circumstance as the End of Love. The love between Marianne and Héloïse exists outside the dregs of possession and enteral devotion because it is plotted on the more forgiving realm of memory.