Movie review: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a (brush)stroke of genius
BY Senior Reporter
In Greek mythology, Orpheus, the son of Apollo, falls in love with Eurydice who is tragically killed by a snake after the short time they are together. Devastated, Orpheus travels to the underworld to strike a bargain with Hades to return Eurydice to the above world. Hades agrees but only under the condition that Orpheus leads Eurydice upwards without looking back at her. Nearly to the top, Orpheus grows doubtful when he can’t hear Eurydice’s footsteps and looks back, losing her forever.
This tragedy has been immortalized in Western thought, captivating the hearts and minds of lovers simultaneously moved by Orpheus’ uncontrollable urge to see Eurydice and asking why he could not have had just a little more faith.Whether he made the poet’s decision of looking behind or was called by Eurydice herself to prompt his fate is explored in Céline Sciamma’s film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” that features many overt references to the fabled story and examines the implications of gaze.
Marianne (played by Noémie Merlant) is a painter who is sent to a remote island in Brittany, France to spend a week observing and acting as a companion to Héloïse (played by Adèle Haenel) in order to paint a portrait of her secretly for her suitor. Héloïse has been forced to leave the convent and is arranged to marry a Venetian man she has never met after the death of her sister. Reclusive, spiteful and repressed, she feels trapped and betrayed by her gender and social status as a woman in the 1770s.
In an early scene, Héloïse takes off in a sprint, racing towards the edge of a cliff only to stop at the last minute to avoid plunging. She turns around, showing her face for the first time, saying that she “has dreamt of that for years” to which Marianne asks, “Dying?” and she says, “Running.” This tangible moment expresses the fluttering, unbridled passion that lies beneath the surface of the deceptively subdued tone of the film.
Marianne’s secret task causes her to pay attention and study Héloïse, memorizing every feature down to the way she holds her hands and bites her lip when she grows uncomfortable. Héloïse begins to notice Marianne’s stares and reciprocates, introducing a subtext of desire as a woman looking at a woman. Eventually, Héloïse agrees to actually pose for a portrait, and her gaze becomes that of a sitter looking at an artist and a woman looking at a woman, gently characterizing and entangling into a final redefinition of the gaze as a lover looking at a lover.
Much of the film allows the viewer to interpret the long stares and fleeting gestures of the protagonists, cautiously allowing their guards to fall as their proximity draws closer. The film brilliantly uses rack focuses, extreme long shots and contrasting primary colors to frame the women and unite them while also emphasizing their difference. For a film so deeply indebted to the power and beauty of sight, the cinematography and setting are fitting. Each shot feels painted and worthy of being studied and admired in isolation as a work of art.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a rare film that feels worthy of the label of masterpiece.
The visual poetry of the cinematography, the dazzling costumes and references to salons and other 18th century French culture, as well as the exploration of longing, regret and the construction of image through gaze are utterly breathtaking. The film’s depiction of LGBT+ characters, the independent career artist Marianne and the strong village bonds among women make a strong statement about female relationships and existence applicable in the current moment while retaining its authenticity and immersion as a period drama is especially commendable. This was accomplished, in large part, by the feminine direction and energy from director Céline Sciamma who brought the film to life.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is an unforgettable, quiet look into the politics of desire and the way we see the world, blurring the lines between image and memory, leading us to consider the undeniable links between vision and regret.