Despite the recent post-#MeToo surge in the popularity of female-led films and films directed by women, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire still manages to feel like a breath of feminist fresh air. Set in eighteenth century Brittany, the director’s second feature (following 2014’s Girlhood, a coming–of–age tale of the black community in suburban Paris) tells the story of portrait painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) who is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of reluctant bride Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) without her sitter’s knowledge, and the ensuing romance between artist and muse, which must inevitably end in premature separation.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film initially is its total lack of male characters, which sadly remains a remarkable feature in a cinematic landscape where most films still struggle to pass the Bechdel test; when a man does appear, a non-speaking footman an hour or so in, it manages to grab the viewer’s attention and reveal how Sciamma has illuminated the perspectives of her heroines through the literal absence of the male gaze. And these perspectives feel refreshingly multi-faceted. For example, in the scene involving Marianne’s artistically conventional first attempt at Héloïse’s portrait (a flat work which strikingly fails to reflect the suppressed passion and courage conveyed in Haenel’s face), both Héloïse’s displeasure at not feeling truly seen by the woman she loves and Marianne’s destructive anger at her artistic failure are given full emotional rein on screen. Similarly, the symbol of Marianne’s initial desire for Héloïse, the latter woman’s silhouette with her dress on fire which gives the film its title, is visually powerful and destructive, and entirely independent of symbols of traditional female sexuality. Sciamma’s refusal to feature male perspectives not only grants the leads an emotionally complex love story, but also allows her to explore the supporting female characters as scenes with sparse yet revealing dialogue depict Héloïse’s mother’s (Valeria Golino) regretful, yet somewhat understanding, attitude towards her daughter’s reluctance to marry. There is also a memorable subplot about Sophie the maidservant’s (Luàna Bajrami) abortion, which resists the subject matter’s tendency to veer into tragedy or melodrama, and contains Héloïse’s visceral and symbolic command both to Marianne and to the viewer that we not look away from the process as it takes place.
Also central to the film is the idea of Marianne and Héloïse not only as lovers but as artist and muse. This theme also inevitably has feminist implications – Héloïse’s erasure of her portrait’s face in the work of Marianne’s predecessor is a violent reaction to a male artist’s interpretation of her, and there is a glimpse of the reality of a woman sharing her perspective in the art world during a gallery scene at the end of the film, when Marianne’s work is credited to her father. There are, however, some more general observations on the relationship between artist and subject; one of the film’s most touching and romantic moments comes during a portrait sitting after Marianne’s secret has been revealed, and she recounts the process of surreptitiously memorising Héloïse’s features whilst posing as her companion. Héloïse proceeds in turn to recall the mannerisms she has observed in Marianne, emphasising that the observed has become the observer, and that the artist-muse relationship is reciprocal. There is also a pleasing reinterpretation of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice running throughout the film, which views Eurydice as the musician Orpheus’ muse whom he chose to remember posthumously rather than save from the Underworld and marry, or as Marianne puts it: “he made not the lover’s choice, but the poet’s”. The culmination of this myth’s use in the narrative, with Marianne mirroring Orpheus and looking back at a ghostly vision of Héloïse in a wedding dress, is thought-provoking and visually haunting. With the film’s ideas about the relationship between artist and muse, it’s also interesting to note the real-life relationship between Sciamma and Haenel, which had ended romantically before the film was made but continues professionally. By playing with the layering of romantic and artist-muse relationships, relationships onscreen and off, and the relationship between actor and viewer, Sciamma invites us to consider what it means to have, and to be, an artist’s muse.
However, though the film may have profound things to say about art and the roles of women, Portrait of a Lady on Fire excels in the poignancy and universality of the love story at its centre. Motifs from the gothic genre – a solitary woman arrives at a geographically isolated house with a history of death (Héloïse’s sister died in an apparent suicide) and mysterious residents, and experiences an all-consuming forbidden love affair – remind the viewer of Rebecca or the work of the Brontë sisters and grant the film and its central romance a sense of grim foreboding. This idea that the love affair might not end well is echoed in the film’s cinematography, as the warm and spacious interior of the house where the lovers meet is contrasted with the wildness of the coastal scenes, and in its almost total lack of a score – music is only used at striking and foreboding moments, such as the rural dance scene at which peasant women chant ‘non possum fugere’, the Latin for ‘I cannot escape’. However, despite the love affair’s sense of dread and impermanence, Sciamma resists the temptation to have it end in tragedy. Instead, the women’s brief relationship is seen to be a happy memory rather than a source of misery later in their lives, as summarised in the film’s most quotable line, Marianne’s “don’t regret, remember”. In the closing scenes, Marianne and Héloïse experience two chance encounters several years later, which confirm, through clever uses of details from earlier in the film that ought not to be revealed in this review, that the women have emulated Orpheus and have prioritised the memory of one another over mourning the loss of the relationship. Portrait of a Lady on Fire has complex and deeply personal ideas to express about women and the production of art, and uses as a vessel for these ideas a love story that is defined by its warmth and by the freedom it grants as much as by its impermanence, and these universal qualities of the story are what may grant the film the labels of timeless and classic.