Should a painting capture its subject or liberate her?
That question lies at the heart of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a bold period drama from writer-director Celine Sciamma (Girlhood). Although an original story all its own, Portrait also recalls feminist literary masterworks like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and the novels of the Bronte sisters, as it presents two women who meet under the strictest artistic circumstances and find, if not freedom, potent methods of creative resistance.
I was pretty much won over within the first 10 minutes when Portrait blatantly references another touchstone: Jane Campion’s The Piano. Just as Holly Hunter’s unwilling bride leaps into the ocean in that film, portrait artist Marianne (Noemie Merlant)—while on a small boat off the Brittany coast in 1790s France—plunges into the water to save the painting supplies that have fallen overboard. After retrieving them and arriving on shore, she heads to her assignment: a portrait of a young woman (Adele Haenel) commissioned by her mother to be sent to a gentlemen in Milan, in hopes of prompting him to propose marriage.
But there’s a catch: Heloise, the subject, doesn’t want to be painted, much less married. She refused to pose for the artist who was previously hired by her mother; all that’s left behind from his efforts is a haunting painting with Heloise’s face smudged out. And so this time her mother (Valeria Golino) tells Heloise that Marianne has simply come to be a walking companion along the lonely cliffs outside their mansion. Marianne, meanwhile, is told to secretly compose a portrait from the glances of Heloise she can steal as they stroll.
What follows is much furtiveness and frustration—of various kinds—all set against the windswept wildness of the Brittany coastline and the creaky darkness of the house (cinematographer Claire Mathon manages exquisite and, yes, painterly compositions using light from candles and fireplaces). The costumes, designed by Dorothee Guiraud, play along, especially when Heloise and Marianne hide behind scarves as protection against the wind. And Sciamma’s framing of the two women recalls Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, particularly a shot of the two of them standing next to each other while gazing at the sea. Their profiles line up perfectly, so that it isn’t until Marianne turns to sneak a peek at Heloise that Heloise’s face is revealed.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is punctuated by numerous instances of stunning imagery. The title, while a play on Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, also comes from a moment in which Marianne and Heloise visit the nearby village and join a gathering of women around a bonfire. Their eyes lock over the flames—the heat of the fire casting a shimmering curtain between them—and they hold each other’s gaze so intensely that Heloise doesn’t notice when her dress begins to burn. Later, Marianne is haunted by visions of a pale Heloise appearing in the mansion’s dark hallways in a shimmering white gown, a corpse bride of despair. And then there is the less fantastic, yet still perfect, shot of Marianne, Heloise, and a young maid (Luana Bajrami) each quietly attending to domestic duties before the fire in the mansion’s kitchen. It’s like a living painting from the late 18th century, except for the key distinction that each of the activities being depicted—sewing, dicing vegetables, pouring wine—are for the women’s own enjoyment, not in service of men.
What follows is much furtiveness and frustration—of various kinds—all set against the windswept wildness of the Brittany coast.
Haenel, who also appeared in Sciamma’s debut film, Water Lilies, is mesmerizing, conjuring a full person using little more than stillness and a direct stare. Her outward reticence (while still giving a hint of inner fire) makes two different bursts of emotion late in the film all the more shattering. And yet this is ultimately Marianne’s story, a portrait of the artist as a young woman who comes to learn the difference between painting a product and painting the truth. Marianne’s early attempt at depicting Heloise is accomplished—and would probably snag the man from Milan—but it’s not the real Heloise. And how could it be? She’s beautiful, yes, but commoditized. Captured, not free.