December 17, 2019


Four seasons in 11 days: ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

By Kate Jinx
Image from ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma’s impeccable study of desire and freedom is a slow burn

“Being free is being alone?” asks Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the subject of the titular portrait, about a third of the way into French auteur Céline Sciamma’s evocative, impeccable Portrait of a Lady on Fire (in cinemas December 26). Though Héloïse is not offered a neat answer at the time, the topic of freedom and all of its gendered intricacies is probed adroitly in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, from sexual politics and class structure, to, curiously, 18th-century psychedelics. It is a slow burn figuratively, and, as its name suggests, quite literally too.

Time is truly of the essence in Sciamma’s film. Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a Paris-based artist, has been summoned to an isolated estate on the rugged Brittany coastline, with the task of painting a young woman over the course of six days. A seemingly simple enough job were it not for the fact that Héloïse has refused to pose and Marianne must complete the work in secret at the behest of the subject’s countess mother (Valeria Golino).

Marianne arrives by rowboat, steered by a crew of young men who offer no assistance when her crate of canvases tips overboard in the choppy waters. It is Marianne who dives in, skirts and all; it is Marianne who lugs her own tools up the steep cliffs while sopping wet; and it is Marianne who changes the established dynamic of her temporary lodging immediately upon arrival. After setting up her blank canvases to dry out by a roaring fire, so too does she, smoking a pipe sans clothes before donning a linen robe and helping herself to her host’s larder, presided over by Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), a young housemaid with a direct way of speaking. Marianne is an arresting figure: handsome, resilient and in control.

The characters subtly wrestle with notions of control but even within the house – populated only by women – patriarchal power looms. The portrait is to be made as visual proof that Héloïse is worthy of marriage to a Milanese nobleman whom she has never met, a pre-pixel profile pic for him to swipe. Should he like what he sees, Héloïse and her mother will move to Italy and start life afresh. One woman’s freedom is another woman’s hell, made worse by the fact that this fate is new to Héloïse, passed on to her by her older sister who appears to have taken her own life in order, at least partially, to escape it. But while the projected male gaze of the unseen potential beau hangs in the air like the abject scent of Lynx deodorant, Sciamma erases it as thoroughly as possible from what we see onscreen.

From the moment following Marianne’s arrival, the majority of Portrait of a Lady on Fire exists in a rarefied field of women’s visions. This is a theme common to Sciamma’s singular body of work, and this film follows her loose trilogy of adolescent female lives: from the burgeoning sexuality of 15-year-olds in 2007’s Water Lilies (in which Haenel also co-stars), to a child experimenting with gender in the miraculous Tomboy (2011) and the life-affirming sisterly gang found in the outskirts of a housing estate in Girlhood (2014). But in Portrait, a woman’s gaze is at a premium, and Sciamma and her cast skilfully wring dynamism out of every furtive glance and longing look.

Posing as a hired companion for Héloïse, Marianne has minimal opportunity to study her subject on their daily coastal walks, and the chilly autumnal weather forces them to cover up with scarves and cloaks that don’t leave much exposed. Wrenched from her secluded life in a convent to assume her sister’s position, Héloïse examines Marianne in turn, economically probing her companion’s less aristocratic, more urbane experiences. When asked if her convent life wasn’t too mundane, Héloïse responds shortly, “Equality is a pleasant feeling.” A bond is formed slowly between the two, and when, after the countess leaves for a brief trip, their six days together is extended to 11, the surreptitious glances become more overt.

With Marianne, Héloïse and Sophie left to their own devices, the power structure is quickly, happily excised; Sophie renders a still life in needlepoint while Héloïse fixes dinner and Marianne pours the wine. It’s a cinematic equivalent of taking one’s bra (bodice?) off when you arrive home after a long day. By candlelight they play vigorous card games and read aloud to each other, pulling apart the ending of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend and reframing it to give the ostensibly doomed Eurydice some agency, a recurring motif.

With agency in mind, the three attend a witchy “feast”, a gathering of local women who break rapturously into song, singing a round of the Latin phrase fugere non possum (“we cannot escape”). Their song is no dirge but a moment of power and beauty, their melodies carrying over a raging bonfire, its embers catching in the air. It is here that we slip into another kind of scene entirely, a space in which the women share their knowledge of a common lived experience, along with home remedies that secretly defy a society that doesn’t hold their best interests at heart. As a portrait artist, Marianne has the gift and responsibility of documenting experiences often overlooked, not just “fleeting moments that may lack truth”.

It is also at the bonfire that the psychedelics are procured, and though hallucinogens might give the illusion of stretching time, Marianne and Héloïse are still bound to nature – their desire for each other, social mores, and a quickly diminishing period of snatched liberation. At least they remember to stay hydrated. Aside from the bonfire sing-along, only one other piece of music appears in this otherwise scoreless film, a rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons first played by Marianne on harpsichord, and later filled out with a full orchestra in a scene that made me feel like every other rendition I’d heard was actually Muzak. “Is it merry?” asks Héloïse. “No, but it is lively,” replies Marianne, whose hands have slipped under the instrument’s skirt-like fabric covering, until Héloïse discards it once and for all.

As Marianne looks all day at her now-complicit portrait subject, Héloïse returns the gaze with purpose. After Water Lilies, Haenel worked again with Sciamma on Pauline (2010), a short film about a young lesbian coming out, which was part of Five Films Against Homophobia, a French government campaign. One might expect there to be a similar sentiment in Portrait, given the pre–French Revolution historical setting, but mercifully there isn’t one. The two women are in love but they are ahead of their time and out of it too; Haenel and Merlant convey this in their looks and by touch, and that’s that. By the time they’re sharing a bed, the camera doesn’t linger voyeuristically on the details, but lovingly portrays the intimacies of sex between women. It is a knowing view, and it makes the world of difference. With cinematographer Claire Mathon (whose recent work on Mati Diop’s Atlantics is also to be celebrated), Sciamma creates a tender space within a harsher world for the two lovers. Be warned, this isn’t a bodice-ripper, but something more authentic and, well, hot.

The bubble is eventually ruptured at the end of their 11 days in each other’s spell, when a man shows up in the kitchen to deliver the portrait and abruptly disrupts the hard-won sanctuary. Sciamma smartly doesn’t dwell on the inevitable – fugere non possum – leaving Héloïse and Marianne to, like Orpheus and Eurydice, either make the lover’s choice or the poet’s. At the end of their portrait sessions, Héloïse asks when an artist knows her work is finished, to which the painter responds simply, “At one point we stop.” And when does a critic let up on attempting to unravel all the delicate mysteries of a film and just give in to it? At one point she stops.

Kate Jinx

Kate Jinx is a writer, critic and film curator. She is the director of programming at Sydney’s Golden Age Cinema and appears regularly on ABC TV’s The Mix. @katejinx

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