In 1975, film theorist Laura Mulvey published an article in Screen titled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” With it she observed the roles of men and women both on- and off-screen in traditional cinematic stories, and coined a key term in film history: the male gaze. Sensual and subtle, Céline Sciamma’s romantic period piece Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) is a French arthouse film in the most literal sense: it is about young women making art and love while residing in an isolated house in Bretagne. The follow-up to her excellent 2014 film, Girlhood, Sciamma’s film could be called “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Part Two: The Female Gaze.”
Or perhaps “the Female Gays,” as Portrait is a passionate, heart-wrenching tale of romantic liaisons between two young women living in the latter 18th century. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter hired by the aristocratic countess (Valeria Golino) to paint the portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) as a gift for the young woman’s future husband in an arranged marriage. Yet Héloïse refuses to sit still for a painter to capture her visage. Still reeling both from the death of her sister and her impending forced nuptials, the young woman’s defiance is clearly evident via her bright, angry eyes. So according to the countess, Marianne must be creative: she must conceal from Héloïse that she is a painter, acting as a walking companion and studying her subject in order to secretly paint the portrait at a later time.
There’s a beautiful oft-quoted line from Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird suggesting that perhaps love and attention are one and the same. We give our attention to that which we love, and we love that which we devote our attention. So as Marianne devotes her whole attention to knowing and rendering the essence of Héloïse, she also finds herself falling in love. Sciamma chooses to show this love via the images; the framing and cinematography are, appropriately, painterly in their composition. This is simply a beautiful film to behold, with exquisite attention to detail and lighting. There are so many images from Portrait coming to my mind which are worth pondering and celebrating: the nude Marianne smoking a pipe by an enormous fireplace, warming herself after jumping into the sea to save her canvasses; the two women, along with the humble housemaid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), making dinner at a table; a campfire song and the titular fiery moment; the pressing and releasing of two pairs of lips in an intimate yet un-invasive close-up.
Portrait is as feminist of a film as they come. I view this as a wonderful gift and strength, although I can imagine some audiences will be less than pleased. It is a film created by and about women all the way through; women lead the way in acting, directing, writing, cinematography, casting, producing, costume designs, and so much more. Yet Portrait is not a “message” film about women’s rights, per se; it can’t be reduced to such didacticism or political gesturing. Sciamma’s interest here is more about these particular women’s complex human relationship, how they navigate the cultural norms of their era, pushing back against some boundaries while reluctantly submitting themselves to others.
In a somewhat tangential subplot, Sophie gets pregnant and seeks Marianne’s help in procuring her an abortion. The abortive act is shot in such a way as to make it look aesthetically beautiful; Héloïse even asks Marianne to paint a portrait of her and Sophie as a reenactment of the abortion, a sort of artistic memento for the moment. Every time this subplot appeared in the film, I was admittedly distracted and put off, pining for when the narrative would turn back to the fiery other women. Sophie is, quite literally, the awkward third party lingering around in a story of two, and the depiction of her abortion feels like the most heavy-handed moment in what is otherwise a truly great film.
When the story (and camera) focuses on Héloïse and Marianne, it’s simply sublime. Merlant and Haenel have genuine romantic chemistry here, and so much is communicated in just a look or a gesture. While Haenel is the more familiar actress for me (she’s remarkably good in the Dardennes’ The Unknown Girl), Merlant is truly the lead here, and lead she does–there is a level-headed confidence about her performance, especially in her physical gestures and her dark, alluring eyes when she is painting a carefully-studied subject. The hand movements when she paints and sketches, as well as the impeccable sound design of the brushes and charcoal touching the canvas, are so smooth that they might almost go unnoticed were it not for Sciamma’s careful and pointed direction. Indeed, Sciamma has crafted one of the best filmic love stories of the 21st century; it joins romantic masterpieces like In the Mood for Love, Before Sunset, Bright Star, and Carol in its capacity to give us a picture of authentic erotic love without ever devolving into the lewd or obscene. The final shot of Portrait of a Lady on Fire might be the strongest of any film this year, a devastating slow zoom which refuses to cut, and demands that we, too, pay attention and burn.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8613070/