Blog Directory CineVerse: Portrait of a film on fire

Portrait of a film on fire

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Directed and written by feminist filmmaker Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a 2019 French film starring Noémie Merlant as painter Marianne and Adèle Haenel as Héloïse, the daughter of a countess who is determined to marry off her reluctant daughter to a wealthy Italian aristocrat and present him with a portrait of his future bride, who refuses to pose for the painting. Set in 18th-century France, this narrative emphasizes a blossoming romance between a female painter and her subject.

It’s easy to see why the picture was voted the 30th greatest movie ever in the Sight & Sound 2022 critics poll. Its vibrant and sensual cinematography and visual aesthetics are worthy of immense praise, as they skillfully capture the natural beauty of the surroundings and the intimate moments shared by the characters. But most of all, the sparkling, emotionally honest, and gracefully nuanced performances by Merlant and Haenel linger long in the viewer’s memory. Portrait of a Lady on Fire has been lauded for its sensitive depiction of same-sex love, its intellectually stimulating thematic elements, and its overarching artistic brilliance. The work’s ability to connect with audiences around the world has embedded its reputation as a significant contribution to feminist filmmaking and queer cinema.

To hear a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here

What helps this film resonate so strongly is its ability to serve as a counterpoint, perhaps even a rebuke of, the traditional male gaze. The notion of the male gaze emphasizes the tendency in visual arts, particularly movies, to predominantly depict women from a heterosexual man’s point of view. The male gaze reveals how narrative choices and the camera lens itself commonly depict females as sexually enticing objects of desire with physical forms designed to be appealing to male sensibilities.

Here, the filmmakers present an opposite approach: the female gaze, in which our expectations are subverted when, for example, a character is shown in nude or partial nude, or an erotic scene takes place. Instead of trying to titillate with images male viewers would find arousing, Sciamma and her collaborators focus more on organically building an erotically charged scene/environment, spotlighting facial glances, expressions, aroused eyes, and tactile sensuality between two characters of the same sex, and concentrating on the unspoken but nearly palpable emotions conveyed by Marianne and Héloïse.

Think about how the painting of a woman in the 18th century would have been a form of the male gaze long before cinema; these paintings of many undoubtedly reluctant or powerless women were often commissioned by men and meant to be cherished particularly by males, who likely saw the female forms painted as desirable. But by having a woman character paint Héloïse, the male gaze is disrupted, and we come to see Héloïse through a fellow woman’s eyes.

Remarkably, the movie features no significant male characters; men in this story rarely have a speaking part, and the opposite sex isn’t even shown until the last act. This is clearly a film about women and made primarily by women, and the absence of males sends a strong message about the film’s thematic agenda. This work celebrates female camaraderie and sisterhood solidarity. Except for the countess, the women in this story work together, participate in a quiet subculture of shared values, and demonstrate gendered empathy.

Furthermore, the subplot about servant Sophie’s abortion is a bold and unexpected deviation from the main romantic narrative. It further emphasizes the difficult choices women in this era had to make, the lack of agency they possessed, and the ingenuity and resourcefulness with which they often had to operate covertly. The overhead shot of Sophie being treated by the midwife while an infant grabs her hand is an unforgettable image of cognitive dissonance. And Marriane’s insistence on painting a re-creation of the abortion adds yet another unanticipated element to the story that informs her character.

Notably, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is replete with contrasting sensory stimuli, including a wet and cold body and her dripping canvasses adjacent to warm fireplaces, dark clothes worn outdoors on bright days, and the din of the pounding surf juxtaposed to two silent smitten lovers.

The film also benefits from a sparse soundtrack that ingeniously employs existing classical music – Vivaldi’s soul-stirring summer movement from The Four Seasons – and an eerily beautiful and evocatively harmonized a cappella hymn from some downright witchy women.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire delves into themes of love, desire, and the constraints imposed by societal expectations. It sheds light on the challenges faced by women within a patriarchal society, as Marianne and Héloïse's relationship develops clandestinely. The film thoughtfully explores concepts such as agency, autonomy, and the power dynamics inherent in relationships.

Looking deeper, beyond the superficial or expected. Héloïse asks: “Is this how you see me?” after her initial portrait is completed. She is dissatisfied with Marianne’s lack of sensitivity and emotional perception. The prime takeaway is that, ideally, the connection between an artist and his or her subject should be symbiotic, synergistic, and reciprocal. Portrait of a Lady on Fire suggests that the muse, or subject, can participate in the art and collaborate with the artist so that the creator and the later audience of the art get to see the true nature of the human subject.

Criterion Collection essayist Ela Bittencourt posited the following: “Sciamma…creates a provincial world in which art—both as a technique governed by solemn tradition and a practical tool for remaking one’s world—is a part of daily life, and in which the artist’s gaze is reciprocal, not one-sided. Similarly, the film presents the act of falling in love not through the (quintessentially male, one might say) lens of conquest and possession but through one of equality between the two lovers, creating a reality in which each can truly see the other.”

Prominent theme #2? The “power of art to validate, preserve, and console after a romance,” or a relationship, is over, according to New Yorker critic Rachel Syme, who wrote that the movie is also “about the erotic, electric connection between women when they find their desire for creative experience fulfilled in each other.” Indeed, keeping love and passion alive through art is one of the central tenets of this picture. Marianne and Héloïse will always share a bond through her paintings and mutual love of art.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a treatise on tragic, doomed, lost love, as well, colored by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus was a gifted musician married to Eurydice. After her untimely death, Orpheus embarks on a perilous journey to the Underworld in an attempt to retrieve her. The gods grant him permission under the condition that he refrains from looking back until they both reach the realm of the living. Unfortunately, just before their escape is complete, Orpheus succumbs to temptation and glances back, resulting in Eurydice vanishing forever. This timeless tale explores themes of love, loss, trust, and the consequences that arise from disregarding divine directives.

“What thrums beneath every scene is a sort of fraught longing — for a love that could not speak its name, certainly, but also for all the larger liberties that women living in the 1700s, even ones as privileged as these, couldn’t dream of: the freedom to marry by choice or not at all; the freedom to earn an independent living; the freedom just to walk down an empty beach, alone,” wrote Entertainment Weekly reviewer Leah Greenblatt.

Similar works

  • Ammonite
  • The Piano, and Portrait of a Lady, both by Jane Campion
  • Blue is the Warmest Color
  • The Handmaiden
  • Carol
  • The World to Come
  • Titanic
  • The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice

Other films by Celine Sciamma

  • Water Lilies
  • Tomboy
  • Girlhood
  • Petite Maman

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