Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

The Female Gaze In All Its Stunning Grandeur

By Mique Watson

This is the female gaze like you’ve never seen it before. “Portrait”–a film set in Brittany, France in the 18th century–is a showcase of how the depths of insight and poignancy in a work of art comes as a result of the artist having a deep, loving, obsessive understanding of their subject. It is a film about two women on an island with hardly anyone else around them and the painfully, yet deliciously slow romance that materializes from a connection of their minds, bodies, and souls.

The film is thematically rich and daring, yet never once seeks to shove a message or agenda down your throat; it’s a love story, plain and simple. Writer/director Céline Sciamma clearly isn’t interested in subverting history in an effort to appease the needs of a contemporary audience–yet in spite of that, this is a film brimming with human truths.  It is reminiscent of the underpinnings and themes found Greek and Gothic literature and poetry. Tender, yet complex and multifaceted–this is in no way a political film, but rather, a subtle social commentary on the kinds of job opportunities available to women in the 18th century.

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The film is understated and quiet–it doesn’t hit the same beats that period films normally do; with the swelling violin music, to the outbursts of melodrama, and fervently bombastic soliloquies… it is a slow burn–one which, for the first entire hour, has nothing that resembles a plot; rather, it gives these two women the chance to breathe–it lets us get to know them and how they operate as individuals, and potential friends (and more). 

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a deliberately paced film which features probably the subtlest of whirlwind courtships ever put to screen”

“Portrait” is a gorgeously shot period film (in more ways than one–wink wink at people who advocate for normalized depictions of female menstruation on film, oh boy is there a treat for you here!) which is absolutely stunning to behold from the first frame to last. It isn’t based on a true story about real people who’ve existed in the past, but its truths are evident; it clearly draws inspiration from years of female artists whose works weren’t as prioritized or taken as seriously as those of their male counterparts.

All this and I haven’t yet even described what the film is about! “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a deliberately paced film which features probably the subtlest of whirlwind courtships ever put to screen. It centres on a painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) who has been hired to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in an effort to persuade a man into marrying her–this man, happens to be her deceased sister’s ex-fiancé. Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino), informs Marianne that her daughter has scared off the last painter due to how uncooperative she is–she utterly refuses to pose for a painting, her reason being, is that she does not consent to marrying a man she hasn’t even met. Marianne is hired, told to pretend to be Héloïse’s hired companion on the island, and is left to her own devices to paint her in secret. 

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The island where this story takes place is practically devoid of men. This gives room for both these women to breathe and for us as an audience to get to know them more without our opinions of them being dictated to us by the men around them. Marianne exudes a strong sense of self-reliance and acute curiosity. In an earlier scene in the film, she asks Héloïse if she thinks her sister wanted to die, Héloïse’s response conveys both alarm and fascination in Marianne’s forthright inquisitive nature. As a painter’s daughter partaking in the family trade, Marianne exhibits no discernable interest in marriage. Héloïse provides a stark contrast because, in comparison, she is being groomed by her mother to be suitable for a wealthy man. Héloïse explored the visually ravishing French coastlines with a cloth face mask and hooded cape, presumably with the goal of keeping to herself and not attracting attention. 

“Other queer films which focus on lesbian relationships serve more as a showcase of the director’s desires than anything else…It would certainly be a stretch to suggest that “Portrait” has anything even remotely similar to that–appealing to male desire is not something Sciamma seems to care to do.”

The more time the two spend together, the more Marianne begins to realize how Héloïse must’ve dissuaded the man who’d previously tried to paint her. She is stoic and never once has a smile on her face, the more Marianne attempts to probe the labyrinthine inner workings of Héloïse’s person, the more determined she is to learn more. Marianne’s warm, yet hesitant gaze seeks to memorize every curvature of Héloïse’s body for the purpose of translating it into a worthy painting. Despite this, it’s only when Marianne slowly chips away at the artifice enshrouding the conventions she works by that both her relationship with Héloïse and the painting come to life. And this all brims with the radiance of a unique and explosive desire that only the restraint and tastefulness of the female gaze can capture. 

“Like most tragic love stories of lust and longing; perhaps the only refuge these two women can/will share, in a very backwards culture, may only be found in the shelter and protection of art.”

Other queer films which focus on lesbian relationships serve more as a showcase of the director’s desires than anything else (see “The Handmaiden” and “Blue is the Warmest Color”). It would certainly be a stretch to suggest that Portrait has anything even remotely similar to that–appealing to male desire is not something Sciamma seems to care to do.

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There’s a point in the film wherein the discussion of the Orpheus myth occurs — Héloïse posits Orpheus’ reason for turning to face his lover (resulting in her disappearance) was that he valued the memory of her over them being together in the real world. In contrast, the latter part of the film depicts Marianne’s painting of Héloïse ultimately turning into a collaborative effort–one which end, in an effectively foreshadowed way–to their impending separation. Orpheus’ lover, Eurydice has already died–but in spite of this, in Orpheus’ heart, the memory of her being young and beautiful will last forever.

And just like most tragic love stories of lust and longing; perhaps the only refuge these two women can/will share, in a very backwards culture, may only be found in the shelter and protection of art. The very last scene in this film reminded me of the ending credits of 2017’s “Call Me By Your Name”; Call Me ends on a note of melancholic acceptance, Portrait ends on a note of explosive, enrapturing emotional intensity–it had me holding my breath. 

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

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