Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an exercise in dramatic irony run rampant. Not only is it an open and loving same-sex love story cloistered in a period setting but it is also a tale about isolation and how it encourages expression and the freedom to say and do what you want. The moments in french auteur Céline Sciamma’s feature that ring most true are the ones of quiet rebellion that prove to be the concealed screams of the controlled and imprisoned. A love letter to femininity set in a time of limits, Sciamma’s romance might just be the finest film I’ve seen all year.
Telling the story of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), an 18th-century painter employed to craft a wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who travels to an island in Britanny to carry out the work. When she arrives, she is informed she must pretend to be Héloïse’s companion and paint the work in secret as she is refusing to pose for the portrait. Glimpsing her subject through momentary glances and unfiltered action, the two women begin to learn much about each other.
Directed and written by Sciamma, her film is a visually audacious love story that never feels like too much or too little. While the world on this secluded island seems set apart from the one Marianne knows or the one we do, everything here is unbiased, a painfully candid look at female restriction and the unfiltered joy of a world where you don’t need to live up to societies expectations. While these two women lack actual liberty, Sciamma is more interested in releasing them from the mental prisons of their own making.
Placing the two in between the differing voices of Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino) and Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), the household’s maid, Sciamma explores the divergent voices of a period where choice isn’t an option for a woman. As Sophie seeks to regain some control after an unexpected pregnancy, La Comtesse, the only name given to Héloïse’s proud but remorseful parent has given up her options long ago, realising she never really had them in the first place. Our two leads find themselves somewhere in the middle of this, making what small decisions they do have count, in a world dominated by men.
The island becomes the fifth character,a bright, colourful and silent voice. A protective force of wondrous beauty that offers brief respite to the women that arrive on its shores. Sciamma’s painting doesn’t have a single male character but their presence is felt throughout, a lingering evil seen in the gorgeously menacing waves lapping against the shore. Shot in a way where much of the island and the background plays into metaphors of gender, freedom and sexuality, the kind you can uncover by approaching the film like a mystery to be discovered.
In that regard, Marianne’s first encounter with Héloïse isn’t so much about what she sees but what is hidden. As the two take an almost silent walk, Sciamma frames the scene, making Héloïse out to be a puzzle in need of solving, something Marianne is being paid to do. The little evolutions, such as her hood falling down to reveal her hair and neck say more about Marianne and the audience than they do of a woman who is simply going for a walk. The beauty of the scene however, outside of the jaw-dropping way its framed by Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon, is the moment you realise this investigation goes both ways.
Watching these smart, different women decipher the actions of each other, the little things around the words becomes as important to you as it is to them. While Haenel plays with the enigmatic nature of Héloïse, she also brings out her stubborn nature and impulsive spirit, all while hiding it away behind a well-crafted facade. Merlant, on the other hand, turns Marianne into an open book, a woman trying to contain her inner thoughts and feelings and failing. She is expressive yet awkward, a person struggling to understand herself. Both are powerful performances that compliment each other instead of stealing each other’s thunder.
Working without the distraction of music, instead, relying on natural sound to fix your attention, placing you on the island with them, everything becomes important, a clue to their inevitable courtship. Silent lingering gazes here prove more erotic than actual nudity, with Sciamma using it sparingly, never making it the focus. Never without passion, the avoidance of showing physical intimacy evokes much-needed character in Marianne.
Bookended with glimpses of the outside world adds urgency to this romance while injecting a sense of tragedy to be overcome or embraced, it is entirely up to you. The way you see the final moments are entirely dependent on your sense of optimism. This might be one of the most romantic films ever made or it might be the ultimate tragedy, the choice is all yours and that’s more than these women were afforded.