Synopsis: A woman is commissioned to paint a woman’s portrait for her prospective husband in 1700s France.
Director and writer Céline Sciamma’s brilliant Portrait of a Lady on Fire is tantamount to watching two films folded into one. One part shows us two women falling in love, both painfully aware that their time together is limited. The other part is bursting with ideas. You’ll need to take mental notes, so you can later get online and wander a warren of rabbit holes, including: the male gaze vs the female gaze, Greek mythology, abortifacient herbs and armpit recreational drugs. (More on the armpit drugs later.)
Let’s begin with the story… in 1770’s France, on an island off the coast of Brittany, a woman, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives at an aristocrat’s home. The Comtesse (Valeria Golino) lives with her daughter, Heloise (Adèle Haenel) and a teenaged attendant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). Marianne has been commissioned by the mother to paint her daughter’s portrait, so that it may be shipped to a wealthy prospective husband in Milan. Héloïse refuses to sit for a portrait because she doesn’t want to be married off. She had been living in a convent, where she later says she experienced an environment of equality. Now, I watched Doubt, set in NYC, Mid-20th Century, starring Meryl Streep as the defacto head nun at a parochial school and, believe me, she really bossed around the novitiate nun, played by a young Amy Adams. But if Héloïse says so…
Marianne has led an uncloistered life, tutored by her artist father; she is an established portraitist. But her client has informed her that her daughter thinks she’s been hired on as a walking companion -nice work if you can get it- and she will have to paint her daughter from memory in the evenings while said daughter is moping in her chambers.
Marianne and Héloïse spend their days walking the windswept landscape of cliffs and beaches. Truculent Héloïse frowns at Marianne’s attempts to draw her out, preferring to frisk around across the fields and even into the water. She tells Marianne that she wants to frolic in the sea. Marianne asks if she can swim. “I don’t know,” she replies. Methinks the young lady let her brain addle in the convent. Turns out, I was wrong…
Marianne and Héloïse come to know each other through art, music and conversation. Maybe Héloïse will choose to sit for her portrait, just to see how Marianne sees her. One day, looking at Marianne’s work, she scoffs at her lack of insight. Offended, Marianne snaps: I didn’t know you were an art critic. Quick as a cat, she retorts: I didn’t know you were a painter. Touché!
But there is also laughter and tenderness as they interact and, yes, movie lovers, there is sexual tension. Viewers shouldn’t expect the sort of male gazey exploitation as seen in another film featuring women lovers, Blue is the Warmest Colour (La vie d’Adèle). There is, however, nudity employed naturalistically. For example, when Marianne first arrived on the island she was cold and wet from her journey. In her new room, she relishes warming herself in front of the fireplace; lounging naked whilst smoking a pipe. Ah, brings me back to my college days.
Sciamma is an intellectual filmmaker who wants o create new narratives and calls Portrait…Fire a manifesto of the female gaze where she wants to eliminate the trope of the passive muse, instead pointing out the collaborative nature of the artist and subject. She challenges us to experience the immediacy of falling in love and creating the memory of a love affair. Phew! Sounds like a lot of work for the viewer, so be well-rested when you watch this movie. Fortunately there is a lot of swoon-worthy dialogue to reward us, like when Marianne asks Héloïse, “You dreamt of me?” “No,” she responds, “I thought of you.”
Our protagonists get their chance for more emotional intimacy and sexual congress when the lady of the manor announces that she must go to the mainland for several days. I’m surprised they didn’t pack her bag and row her to shore themselves. Mais, alors… the maid Sophie remains behind. You might be inclined to feel badly for her thinking that she will be a third wheel. Non! She becomes, not part of a ménage a trois, but a sorority of equality. The women cook together, play cards and read Eurydice and Orpheus. One night they go to a bonfire where local women (it’s a veritable Lesbos) confer and chant in Latin. The only Latin I know is from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, gleaned from repeated viewings of the bastard Frollo singing about his piousness while slut-shaming Esmeralda, so I was confused. Another confusing thing… at the bonfire party, Héloïse procures a mysterious party drug. Back at home, lounging together en déshabillé, she entreats Marianne to fondle her hirsute armpit with the herbs. And in closeup it looks like…shall I say, a lady garden. Or in French, viva la vulva. Are you getting the picture?
And on that note, Movie Loon enjoins you to be an active viewer of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a film full of liberté, egalité, sororitié. And amour.
P.S. Watch for the dramatic shift from the formal vous to the informal tu, when, at a doorway, one lover says to the other, not retournez, but retourne. (Turn around.)
P.P.S. In the late 1700s in Europe, women were mostly excluded from studying at the Art Academies and thus, from exhibiting their works at salons where they could develop a clientele. There was, however, a tradition of nuns who painted and women who learned to paint from their artist fathers and made a living as portraitists (as in the movie). For more on women painters in history click here.
P.P.S.S. All of the paintings in Portrait of a Lady on Fire were done by Hélène Delmaire.