Celine Sciamma’s powerful period piece, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, creates a sensitive and devastating portrayal of two women falling in love.
“Is it better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all?”
It’s a question that has been asked countless times throughout the history of cinema, to the point where, frankly, it isn’t that interesting anymore. But in Céline Sciamma’s period drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, this question finds new life.
When the film begins, we meet Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter who is commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Because the painting is intended to find her a husband, Héloïse has refused to pose for any previous painter her mother has hired. Therefore, Marianne has arrived on the isolated French island where Héloïse lives under the pretense of being a companion for walks. Unbeknownst to Héloïse, Marianne is studying her face in order to paint her portrait in secret.
However, about midway through the film, there’s a shift. Héloïse is reading a book to Marianne and a maid named Sophie, and they discuss the ancient Greek tragedy of lovers Orpheus and Eurydice. After Eurydice dies, Orpheus travels to the underworld in an attempt to bring her back to life. Hades makes a deal with him — he will bring Eurydice back to life, but only if Orpheus doesn’t look back at her as they walk out of the underworld. Unfortunately, just as they’re almost out, Orpheus can no longer resist looking at Eurydice. By giving in to this urge, he damns her soul and loses her forever.
Sophie sees the story from an entirely straightforward and cynical perspective, calling Orpheus an idiot and wondering why he’d choose a life of solitude and sadness when he was so close to having his love back. But Héloïse sees it differently, arguing that, after already losing a great love, all you have left is the memory of what’s lost. Why, she asks, should Orpheus risk the anguish and heartache that would come if he lost that love again? Why not simply keep the memories and preserve the greatness you’ve already experienced?
Over the course of this film, Héloïse faces a similar situation in her own life, as she and Marianne begin to fall in love. Lesbian romance has been portrayed onscreen before, but never in such a purposeful and singular way. We see the seeds of passion planted slowly and delicately. As Héloïse and Marianne grow closer, and their companionship begins to blossom into something much richer, it causes the viewer to fall in love with the couple. Sciamma crafts her own cinematic rhythm and language to tell their story. So much of the depth and subtext you get from the film is non-verbal, and lies in the glances exchanged by the characters.
All of this builds up to a breathtaking final scene that calls back to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. It’s both beautifully romantic and devastating, ripping your heart out of your chest as you watch.
Haenel and Merlant are key in honing this subtle rhythm, becoming the paint that Sciamma uses to create her art. The chemistry they have is electric, and the film thrives due to their strength and bravery as they give every inch of their souls to the camera, Sciamma, and each other.
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a love story about equality. Equality in intimacy, vulnerability, and generosity. Sciamma strived to make a film that’s compassionate to all of its characters, showing that you can be selfish and angry while also being open and giving. When Héloïse and Marianne first meet, they are both objects in a world seeking to define them by their appearance and gender. They’re also entirely alone, emotionally and physically. Both relish solitude, and find it hard to connect to others. But through their passion, the two find a unique sense of sexual and artistic liberation. They are no longer objects, but the subjects of their own story, allowing each other to explore facets of themselves they didn’t even know existed through the canvas.
An obvious benefit to having Sciamma, herself a lesbian, direct the film is that the female gaze is so clearly key to the construction of the scene. This is most clear in the film’s sex scenes. The sex isn’t exploitative or smutty; instead, we are given a tender look into the way passion is expressed through the body, and builds an emotional bridge to a partner.
Sciamma chooses to place emphasis not on body parts like breasts or posterior, as has been done in other films dealing with lesbian love, such as Blue is the Warmest Color. Rather, she focuses on the eyes, utilizing extremely tight close-ups and long unbroken shots of the women’s faces to invite the audience into the souls of Héloïse and Marianne, granting unrestricted access to these incredibly intimate private moments.
This film is an excellent depiction of a lesbian relationship due not just to Sciamma’s craft, but the sensitivity and grace with which she handles the characters. Marianne and Héloïse are fully realized and feel like real people rather than the caricatures they could have become. Their realization that true freedom doesn’t lie in solidarity, but in being loved and knowing that love comes unconditionally, is the beating heart of this film, and what makes it so special.
Portrait of a Lady On Fire is a masterful, searing, and impeccably crafted piece of art from one of the best filmmakers alive. It is a heartbreaking and hypnotizing vision of passion and desire that everyone should experience.
Images via Pyramide Films