“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”: Film Review

Céline Sciamma’s critically acclaimed tale of a silently rebellious love on a strange island, set in the 18th century, starts with a splash.

A woman throws herself into restless waters when her possessions are thrown out of the small boat taking her to a near desert island off the Britanny coast. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter, commissioned to create a portrait of a young woman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel).

This is a preliminary to Héloïse’s marriage to a Milanese nobleman, or so her mother (Valeria Golino) hopes. Héloïse is her mother’s ticket to freedom – an escape from the isolation of a dour windswept house, and a return to the luxurious sophistication of a grand city.

There’s a catch. There are several catches. Héloïse is her mother’s second chance; her older sister, a first chance snuffed out a fall of a cliff. By accident or design, the younger sister, now dragged from her convent, is set on a new path. But she will not have her portrait painted, and without it, there cannot be a marriage offer.  A first painter has had to down paintbrushes.  Now Marianne has arrived to take on this arduous task, and this can only be achieved by deceit.  Be my daughter’s companion, the mother says, look at her, and then paint her from memory.

Marianne’s constant stolen glances at Héloïse can be read in so many ways, and in that austere and spartan house, inhabited by only four women, mother, daughter, painter and a maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), a love story of sorts starts, and perhaps never ends.

There is an austerity to this love, a withholding, and this is perhaps not surprising. It starts with betrayal, after all, and this quiet passion, full of new discoveries, takes place in a household of supremely self-possessed and independent women, with divergent destinies. These are also lives which though devoid of men’s physical presence, for a moment, are almost completely pre-determined and framed by them – and in a way, so is, perhaps, this film.

What is left is inner freedom, and this is powerfully – and rythmically expressed during a high point in the film – as islander women stand around a bonfire at night, and sing a wonderfully anachronistic tune by Para One (aka Jean-Baptiste Laubier) and Arthur Simonini, and inspired by Ligeti – remember Kubrick’s 2001? – with haunting words into which one can read so much: Non Possum Fugere – I cannot flee, and Nos Resurgemus – We Rise Again – but are, it seems, a riff on Nietzsche with possibly a different meaning.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is an elegant and highly formal story, with an economy of style which brings the viewer’s gaze back, time and again, to its protagonists’ own gaze. The constant looking and looking back, between painter and subject, between lovers, is also a negotiated contract – trust and power changing hands.

The script, which won best screenplay at Cannes in 2019, provides a source of never-ending disquisitions on a multiplicity of topics, from the power of the gaze, to Orpheus’s choice to turn back and look at his dead beloved wife and thus losing her forever – and to the symbolism of a painter’s work, which is, as well-known and as Marianne herself says, only finished when the painter decides to stop.

Director and Writer Céline Sciamma
DoP Claire Mathon
With Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino, Christel Baras

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