It’s significant that Portrait of a Lady on Fire is written and directed by a woman–Celine Sciamma–as well as photographed by a female cinematographer, Claire Mathon. This is a film that is fixated on painterly details and the female form, with the kind of comfort and intimacy that a male filmmaker might not approach the same way. The softness and balance in every single frame of Sciamma’s observant love story achieve what a great classical painting does, making the viewer consider the subject’s unspoken emotions through expression, position and movement.
The lovers at the center of Portrait of a Lady on Fire are painter Marianne (Noemie Merlant) and Heloise (Adele Haenel). Heloise’s mother (Valeria Golino) has commissioned Marianne to paint Heloise’s portrait, for her upcoming arranged marriage. Heloise is resistant to the marriage, so much so that she foiled the previous painter’s attempt to create a portrait, so her mother tells Marianne that a traditional portrait sitting is out of the question. Heloise has been told Marianne is to be her walking companion, and Marianne will have to observe her and create the portrait based on her observations. In the process, the two women bond, and after Heloise’s mother leaves for a few days, that bond becomes a passionate romance.
Sciamma sets the romantic tension early on, through an extended setup with twinges of gothic romance. Heloise and her mother live on an island, and Marianne’s first moments there make the house feel large and mysterious. Heloise’s introduction is prolonged and enigmatic as well. Marianne’s first glimpse of her is a ruined portrait. At their first meeting, Sciamma only gradually lets the audience see Heloise’s face, introducing her first in a hood, then from behind, and finally showing Haenel’s face after she takes off in an exhilarating run toward the cliffs.
That tension is continued, subtly but gorgeously, in the shots Sciamma creates with Mathon; all are perfectly composed and suffused with meaning. In one scene, Marianne and Heloise stand on either end of a table, as a fire grows in a hearth between them. In a later scene, the two look at each other over a bonfire, and this time Marianne’s dress catches, symbolizing how their feelings for each other have gone from warmth to passion. More than that, there’s clear affection in the way the film portrays the female body, showing soft, comfortable curves and small details that are true to the way Marianne, an artist, would observe them — but also to the intimacy she and Heloise share.
The message at the heart of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, about women artists and the patriarchal structure of art, shows up in the film and is bolstered metatextually. After Heloise learns Marianne’s real profession, she asks her if she ever uses nude male models in her work. Marianne replies that she’s not allowed to, “mostly to keep (women) from creating great art. Without an understanding of he male anatomy, the major subjects escape us.” From then on, it’s hard to watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire without that statement in the back of your mind.
Considering that Portrait of a Lady on Fire contains almost no male cast members, has a female director and a mostly female creative crew, the whole film is a testament to the idea that great art doesn’t require the presence or involvement of men. Women’s stories are just as important, their bodies just as powerful, their eye for visual beauty just as profound. Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t just a love story. It’s a strong statement on the unique skill and importance of female artists, and the stories that artists capture in their work.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” begins its nationwide roll-out on Friday.