Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Directed by Céline Sciamma; Written by Céline Sciamma

To be seen.

A portrait is more than a picture of someone. If done with insight and expert hand, it conveys who we are more than what we look like, our character coming through like the shine on burnished metal. Paintings such as these are few and far between, and the same can be said of films that achieve a similar reveal, and show a similar grasp of what eludes so many. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is such a film, a symphony on heartstrings about two lovers who see right to the core of each other.  

Their names are Marianne and Héloïse. The former a portrait painter, the latter her subject. Marianne is to paint a portrait of Héloïse for her fiance to see and use to decide whether to marry her. It’s Tinder, 18th century-style. But she’s to paint the portrait in secret, as Héloïse is less than interested in the completion of the portrait, because marriage was never her ambition. She is to stand in her late sister’s stead, as women are interchangeable and a wife’s a wife, per the logic of the time.

It’s easy to guess that the inner lives of women during this time were kept under wraps, if thought not to even exist. Marianne is eyed suspiciously by men, and has only gotten her foot in the door because she has her father’s last name. She’s allowed to paint, but as she tells Héloïse, she’s not allowed to paint naked men, and so without an idea of the male anatomy, mankind’s great ideas are barred from her. Héloïse, on the other hand, is jealous of Marianne’s freedom to pursue her desires at all, however limited they may be. 

There’s a perfect visual representation of this as the film is getting underway in earnest, and Marianne and Héloïse deepen their emotional intimacy with each other. Héloïse tells Marianne of her love of music, and how she’s until now been limited to what she can hear at church, and as such has never heard an orchestral piece. Marianne, trying to give her just a taste, takes a seat at a covered up harpsichord, but doesn’t remove the cloth, sliding her hands underneath instead. Sciamma shoots this all with Marianne’s back to us, and soon we hear the music flowing forth from under the cloth, source out of sight, but ringing out. 

Sciamma’s lens is as in love with the two central women as they are with each other. She holds her medium and medium close-up shots for long spells as if to suggest this very thing is what is subversive about their behavior. Women, in 18th century France, weren’t meant to look at each other like this: with hunger, with yearning, with enamourment. 

Noémie Merlant and Adéle Haenel as Marianne and Héloïse respectively are both outstanding and the sheer sensual power they pour into every scene is enough to make anyone feel alive simply by watching. Individually, their performances are strong. Together, they’re irresistible.  

Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t just about two who fall in love. It’s about two women who succeed in subverting the bonds society has placed on them and find something in each other that is endlessly more powerful than the fulfillment of desire. It’s kinship. To gaze upon the face of someone who sees you for who you are, what you want, and what you’re capable of, and loves you for it. When someone has looked at you like that, you’ll never be alone again. 

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