Since her debut with Water Lilies in 2007, Céline Sciamma has maintained her quiet dedication to the stories of women and queer individuals. Her second film, Tomboy (2011), captured the life of a gender-non-conforming child, whilst Girlhood (2014) focused on the challenges of female adolescence. With Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma turns her gaze to adult subjects for the first time, in an intimate study of lesbian desire.
The film begins in a classroom, as artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) poses for her students. Marianne’s manner is initially encouraging until she notes an uncovered painting at the back of the room – a portrait of a woman alone on a beach, the ends of her dress consumed in flame. It quickly becomes apparent that the painting was hidden for a reason, as Marianne snaps at the poor student who dared to uncover the piece, and Portrait dives into a flashback for the majority of the rest of the film, recounting the tale of the painting’s subject, and of her love affair with its artist.
Marianne’s commanding presence consumes much of the first third of the film, contrasting the slow and deliberate introduction of Héloïse (Adele Haenel) and building an enigmatic air of mystery that never quite leaves her character. Marianne arrives at Héloïse’s home with canvases and supplies, employed to paint her portrait – a tradition for those who are about to be wed. The task will not be simple, however, as Héloïse is unwilling to aid a marriage she does not want, and refuses to sit for a painting. In order to capture her image, Marianne must instead pose as an escort for Héloïse’s daily walks and paint from memory. After the passing of her sister, these accompanied walks are the only freedom Héloïse is allowed. Through all of this arrangement, Héloïse herself is conspicuously absent, trapped by the whims of family and tradition, little more than a subject of discussion – or an image to be painted.
It is not until their first walk that Marianne finally lays eyes on Héloïse, and Sciamma builds further tension up to the grand reveal of her face, ensuring the camera remains locked on Haenel’s back. Marianne follows her new subject diligently until Héloïse suddenly begins to run towards a cliff’s edge, and for a moment there is fear that she will succumb to the same fate as her sister. At the last moment, she turns back, her gaze fixing on Marianne’s – and the audience – to finally reveal the face of the ‘lady on fire.’
Day by day, little by little, Marianne paints her portrait, the pieces coming together methodically – face, arms, hair, hands. The two-inch closer, the full extent of Héloïse’s character fleshing out alongside her painted counterpart, and she becomes charming and mischievous in Marianne’s company. Humanising tinges of comedy frequent Sciamma’s otherwise poetic script: these characters may be from the 18th century, but their personalities feel refreshingly modern. A world away from any stuffy stereotypes, the dialogue is daring and often fun, detailing the experience of intimacy in a manner grounded in realism. As often happens, there is no sudden fall into bliss for the pair, instead it is a slow burn into love – and what a rapturous love it is.
In the creation of her art, Marianne discovers a person so much more complicated than paint and canvas – in this sense, the film is the true portrait, depicting the complexity of Héloïse’s desire. Once emotionally guarded, she now allows Marianne to see her at her most vulnerable. It’s a beautiful change that keeps in mind the desires of the individuals at all times; for Héloïse, freedom is the ultimate goal, and the slow dismantling of her boundaries feels like a personal release as well as a journey towards love. With the threat of a loveless marriage constantly in the background, the pair refuse to see their own relationship as a trap; theirs is a bond that runs deeper than societal definitions. Limited by a very present time – they may only be together when Héloïse’s mother is away, an exact five days – the temporariness of their romance is amplified with every day that passes, as they strive to make the most of every precious second.
“Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?” Héloïse wonders aloud as she holds Marianne for the first time. Sciamma’s love story is imbued with references to existing art and culture, from Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’ to the story of Eurydice, but all expressions of emotion here feel distinct – Héloïse and Marianne may well be inventing the concept of love, for all else falls away once they are together. This may be a new kind of story within Céline Sciamma’s repertoire, but Portrait proves the director is a natural at crafting romance. From coming-of-age to explorations of gender to period drama, her careful understanding of human emotion shines through – and Portrait of a Lady on Fire may well be her best.
Words by Meg Christopher