Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Max Ingleby finds Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be an “melancholic, piercingly individual piece of art.”
It is a frustrating exercise to summarise Portrait of a Lady on Fire into an easy synopsis, to attempt to capture its essence in a few short sentences. It is a visually dazzling period piece set amongst the windswept cliffs of the Breton coast, yet also a masterwork of restrained, intimate queer romance, and also a deeply allegorical contemplation on the art of filmmaking and the reclamation of the gaze. Categorisation is pointless; director Céline Sciamma is painting her own picture, a mesmeric, melancholic and piercingly individual piece of art.
Set in the 18th century, our protagonist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a portrait artist sent to a remote island in Brittany to paint Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) whose picture will be sent off to an unseen Milanese gentleman who intends to marry her. Héloïse, reluctantly plucked from a convent for the upcoming betrothal, has no desire to squander her independence thus, and has refused to sit for a portrait. Marianne is therefore tasked with posing as her lady companion, whilst surreptitiously observing her in order to piece together a portrait without her knowledge.
This intriguing deceit is short-lived, but it sets up a wondrously nuanced dynamic between the two leads, who challenge and deconstruct their roles as object and viewer in ways that directly mirror the actor/director relationship. Merlant and Haenel have ridiculously good chemistry, conveying what their characters are forbidden from openly saying with lingering glances, pursed lips, tentative touches of the hand – it’s a disgrace that neither were nominated at the Oscars this year.
Sciamma seems to be saying that all women are damaged by the film industry, even those who try to control the male gaze from behind the camera.
The influence of art, specifically painting, over the technical aspects of the film is delightfully evident. Warm, candlelit tableaus evoke Rembrandt, and the light streaming across panelled interiors brings to mind Vermeer, even Hammershoi. When dinner is prepared, mushrooms, herbs and a glass of wine are conspicuously arranged like a Dutch still life, the table perfectly aligned with the bottom of the frame. Characters dress in block colours, with one shot featuring red, yellow and blue dresses, the three primary colours (according to 18th century colour theory).
Painting is also a perfect metaphor for the urgently relevant situation of women in cinema today. Marianne seems to live an independent life, having the ability to choose between a career and a marriage, yet she quickly comes to realise that she is playing an active role in taking away the liberty of the women she is employed to paint. The painting as a symbol of Héloïse’s lost freedom evolves into a symbol of the couple’s doomed separation – hurting both in the process. Sciamma seems to be saying that all women are damaged by the film industry, even those who try to control the male gaze from behind the camera. “I’d hate to be in your place,” Marianne remarks as she paints, “We’re in the same place,” Héloïse replies, “Exactly the same place.”
That gaze is radically realigned, however, in one of the most powerful sequences of the film. After their maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), falls unintentionally pregnant, Héloïse and Marianne help her seek out an abortion from a local woman, who performs the procedure in front of them. Marianne grimaces and turns away, but is quickly told to “Look.” The camera looks with her, a prolonged closeup on Sophie’s agonised expression. The women later re-enact the scene for Marianne to paint, an image that seems like a true female gaze – of women, by women, for women. An achingly romantic film with a revolutionary message at its core, Portrait is a must watch.