Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Written & Directed by Céline Sciamma
For the majority of the film’s runtime, we do not see a single male character on screen. In the third act, when a man is found eating breakfast in the kitchen, it is a jolt to the system, signaling that whatever has come before is over. The expectations and duties of these women must be resumed, and the life they were able to experience for a brief time is over. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a subdued and even unsentimental look at a relationship between two women in a time where they had no future where they could stay together.
Marianne, a painter, is thrust back into a seminal moment in her past when a student pulls out one of her old works. Memory takes her to a time in Brittany, France, where she was paid to paint the portrait of Heloise. Heloise’s mother, The Countess, explains that every artist they have brought into their home has been unable to finish their paintings as Heloise will not cooperate. Her plan now is to have Marianne pose as a hired companion/maid and spend enough time around the woman to paint her accurately.
Marianne learns that Heloise is meant to be married off to a Milanese businessman and is only doing this because her sister killed herself months earlier. Heloise was at a convent, working to become a sister but was pulled back over family duty. Director Céline Sciamma uses the camera to place us in the shoes of Marianne, getting to know the elusive and seemingly seething Heloise. Over time a stronger bond grows between the women, not even broken when Heloise inevitably learns that Marianne is there to paint her. Isolated on this island, the women are allowed to give in to their feelings once The Countess departs to arrange things in Milan.
Sciamma chooses to make the relationship between the women both intensely intimate and sexually charged, yet pulls the camera away to refrain from exploiting the genuine love between the two. There are many scenes of Marianne and Heloise lying together in bed, but you never get the sense Sciamma wants to objectify them. They find in each other an equally passionate companion who hungers for more than the world can give them. Heloise is sheltered, having never heard much music beyond a church organ. When Marianne plays a bit of Vivaldi on the harpsichord, it charges Heloise with the notion that so much awaits her beyond this island.
But that’s the tragic catch. To leave this place, Heloise must marry the Milanese man, and that will mean breaking from Marianne. The film manages to capture the fragile sense that queer relationships must have had during periods and in cultures where they were kept taboo. Every moment is to be savored because, at some point, these women have to resume their roles. Marianne is a painter, trying to compete in an art world that favors the male perspective. At one point, she even has to explain how she submitted her own painting under her father’s name, knowing it wouldn’t be shown in a gallery otherwise.
Sciamma is a filmmaker in full command of her craft. She understands the themes and arc of her story and can infuse scenes with subtle metaphors. A gathering of local women becomes a magnificently transcendent moment as they join in song, transporting Marianne and Heloise into a different reality for just a moment. Marianne frequently glimpses a vision of Heloise in a dress, standing in a doorway that comes to have powerful significance later. Light and shadow are sculpted to obscure and reveal precisely what the filmmaker wants. The finale, in particular, feels like a release of all that restrained emotion our characters have had to hold back, a single shot set to the perfect piece of music that allows a brief moment of freedom.