Film Review: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” — “A Love Story With Equality”

By Erica Abeel

Portrait is a masterly work of historical realism — about an enduring love between two women — done in high-flying poetic style.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Céline Sciamma. Screening at the IFFBoston Fall Focus on November 3.

Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel in a scene from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a gripping slow-burn of a film about an enduring love between two women. Set during the 18th century in Quiberon on Brittany’s Cote Sauvage or Wild Coast, the narrative interweaves the demands of art with a study in sexual passion that flowers in the crannies of a rigidly patriarchal culture. Director Céline Sciamma, one of many women filmmakers on the rise in France, has won a following for such contemporary coming-of-agers as Water Lilies and Tomboy. Her first period piece, Portrait is a masterly work of historical realism done in high-flying poetic style.

A standout at this year’s New York Film Festival, the film takes the form of an extended flashback, framed by a flash forward at the end to a final bittersweet coda. Marianne, a painter (Noémie Merlant, superb), is first glimpsed teaching in an art school. When a student inquires  about Marianne’s canvas titled Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the memory of an earlier passion floods back. (In interviews, Sciamma has called this “the Titanic structure.”) Several years in the past Marianne was commissioned by an Italian countess (Valeria Golino) to paint the portrait of her daughter Heloise (Adèle Haenel). A perverse caveat is attached: Heloise refuses to sit for the portrait and Marianne, forced to pose as a lady’s companion, must create a likeness based on memory.  The portrait is intended to entice an anonymous Milanese nobleman into matrimony. Any wonder that proud, rebellious Heloise is resistant?  It’s strongly implied by a maidservant (Luàna Bajrami) that Heloise’s sister, possibly faced with a similar fate, preferred to hurl herself off the cliffs. For highborn girls of the period, it was often either an arranged marriage or the convent.

The world Sciamma conjures up here is practically devoid of men. They might control women’s destiny, but the inner lives of Sciamma’s characters are their own. Marianne is a paragon of self-reliance — yet somehow she doesn’t come across as anachronistic.  In an early scene, that’s perhaps a touch too emphatic, she dives into the sea when her easel falls off the boat ferrying her to the coast. The man on board might just as well be invisible. As a painter’s daughter wed to the family business, Marianne shows no interest in marriage. Heloise, by comparison, is being packaged to please a wealthy suitor. She roams the craggy coast hidden within a hooded cape, determined not to be seen — the better to escape her destiny and the demands of men? Marianne must visually memorize Heloise, then hurry back to her easel and covertly sketch her.

Marianne’s devouring gaze, seeking to imprint her subject on her inner eye, melts Heloise’s diffidence. In a discussion of the Orpheus myth — and a bit of foreshadowing — Heloise claims that Orpheus turned, fatally, because he wanted the memory of Eurydice, not life lived. The women make a striking pair, Marianne dark and almost feral in her intensity, Heloise blonde and aloof. When she confides she attends church because she loves the music, Marianne plays her a snatch of Vivaldi on a shrouded piano, which will resonate movingly in the coda’s final revelation.

An almost-hallucinatory scene finds a group of women around a fire on the beach at night, chanting like a pagan coven. From the middle distance Heloise shoots Marianne a scorching look to match the flames licking at her skirt — reprising the painting from the prologue. Of course the film is built as a slow tease traveling toward just this moment — when the women become lovers.  “Je vous comprends,” Marianne says, words that evoke intimacy more than a score of erotic scenes. Heloise: “Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?  I know all the gestures.”

The aesthetic scrutiny of the artist becomes conflated with the gaze of mutual infatuation. If anything, the gaze of Sciamma’s heroines might be the true subject of the film. Marianne is haunted by an eerily recurring vision of Heloise in white bridal array, a forlorn ghost out of horror films. A subplot follows the women’s efforts to help the maidservant get an abortion, a cringe-worthy episode. Heloise, who now willingly collaborates in her own portrait, urges Marianne to paint that scene, too.

The script is a marvel of coiled irony; it won the best screenplay prize at Cannes. (Sciamma was also the first woman to receive the Cannes Queer Palm.). The lovers are obliged to collaborate on a portrait that will drive them apart, to orchestrate their own loss.  “Through the painting,” Marianne says, “I give you to another.”

Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel in a scene from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”

Portrait is also thrillingly cinematic, making do with only the sparsest of dialogue. The story moves forward through a succession of painterly images: Marianne in profile sitting naked before the fire, drying off after her plunge into the sea; the high romance of the two women in long gowns, one red, the other green, sweeping along the wind-battered coast; the hem of Heloise’s dress figuratively on fire. Some viewers may find the pace draggy, reflecting as it does the slower tempo of an era remote from today’s high-fructose frenzy. More crucially, at moments the lovers feel like intellectual constructs, rather than breathing characters. (Such a lapse never occurs in the films of Luca Guadagnino, another student of queer desire.)

Lately, there’s been much talk of a “female gaze” in cinema, supposedly to counter the “male gaze” that has long dominated the screen. Though it is tempting to apply the term to Portrait, it just doesn’t parse. The male gaze reflects the male patriarchal culture and depicts women as sexualized objects for the pleasure of men.  There’s perhaps no direct female equivalent of the male gaze; certainly it would be a stretch to find such a parallel in Portrait.

Still, one can well imagine where a male filmmaker might have taken this story. Just think of the graphic lesbian sex scenes in Blue Is the Warmest Color (a film that won the Palme d’Or but also the enmity of its female leads, who later claimed they felt exploited by the male director Abdellatif Kechiche). And men are still not getting it. A shot of the lovers in bed, Heloise toying with the luxuriant hair in her armpit, prompted a male critic to comment that men might want to reconsider their standards for female grooming. Somehow, pandering to male desire is not, I suspect, high on Sciamma’s list. If one insists upon a female gaze, perhaps it’s reflected in the delicacy and respect the director shows her actors/characters.  The director describes the film as “A love story with equality.”

Erica Abeel is a novelist, film and cultural critic, and former professor at CUNY. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Indiewire, and other major sites and publications. Wild Girls, her most recent novel, was praised by Oprah Magazine as a “libidinous period novel [that] follows three budding feminists through an elite women’s college, the New York art scene, and Allen Ginsberg’s bed, as they redefine womanhood for themselves and future generations.”

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