In Céline Sciamma’s unabashedly romantic and fiercely political film Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), two women fall in love and set each other free, if for only a few glorious days or weeks. It is one of the most unforgettable depictions of love foresworn, of lesbian love, of any true love, in cinema. Around the besotted lovers, the film envisions a social contract defined by a strong sense of community among women, no matter their age or class. It takes place in the late eighteenth century, but it also speaks to our own time, as many women continue to call for intersectional solidarity in their fight for equality. It is no accident that here the engine of this revolution is art. Sciamma, who grew up outside Paris and would bike into a neighboring town to go to the movies, creates a provincial world in which art—both as a technique governed by solemn tradition and a practical tool for remaking one’s world—is a part of daily life, and in which the artist’s gaze is reciprocal, not one-sided. Similarly, the film presents the act of falling in love not through the (quintessentially male, one might say) lens of conquest and possession but through one of equality between the two lovers, creating a reality in which each can truly see the other.
The preoccupations with longing and looking—who is gazing and who is returning the gaze—are not new for Sciamma, nor is the centering of a kind of character not often seen on-screen. The director’s previous three features are poignant contemporary coming-of-age stories: In Water Lilies (2007), an adolescent girl experiences her first lesbian crush. In Tomboy (2011), a young child, Laure, tests the bounds of sexuality and gender. Girlhood (2014) is the story of a teenage French-African girl who finds a way of navigating the violence and poverty of her life by joining an all-female gang. Although Sciamma’s stories often tell of yearning—and always from a queer, female point of view—the director is far from a fatalist: in her films, love paves the way to personal growth and creates a keen sense of one’s own self-worth. Like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Water Lilies and Tomboy both revolve around intense looking. And in Tomboy, Laure’s portrait being drawn is a painful reminder of just how powerful it can be to be seen by another. Another memorable moment of recognition takes place in Girlhood, when the heroine, Marieme (Karidja Touré), watches her best friends dance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” Here, the young black women claim their spots as divas, agitators, rebels, rather than people shunted off—by the education system and by the men around them—into roles of caregivers or sex workers. When the reserved Marieme turns from observer to participant and joins the dance, it is a thrilling instance of feminine jouissance: sensual, luminous, radiating warmth. This vision of joyous sisterhood returns in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma’s first period film, in which she shows us that although desire leaves us vulnerable and exposed, it also defies solitude.
The film takes place on an isolated island off the northern coast of France. A young painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), has been hired, ostensibly as a walking companion for an obdurate heiress, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Marianne’s real job, however, is to paint a bridal portrait of Héloïse without arousing the suspicion of her model, who is resisting being married off to rescue the family’s fortunes and thus refuses to pose. Héloïse has been brusquely pulled from her happy life in a Benedictine convent by her countess mother to marry a wealthy Milanese man previously engaged to her older sister, who committed suicide by jumping off a cliff. “In her last letter, she apologized,” Héloïse will say of her sister, “for leaving me her fate.” Marianne arrives on the island soaked, having dived into the water to rescue her painting supplies after the rocking boat knocked them overboard. A bit later, she sits naked by the fire at her new residence, facing her dripping canvases. In this scene, Sciamma deliciously evokes the female nude as a sexually charged subject in painting. It is intensely pleasurable to look at Marianne, but her own pleasure, in the warmth and in her tobacco, and her sense of liberty are equally striking. The moment also prefigures a metaphorical denuding. Governed by her training in portraiture, Marianne begins with rigid notions of composition, which Héloïse will come to challenge.
“In this film, the consequences of men’s authority are omnipresent, but women take the reins, and their isolation becomes a measure of their freedom.”
Sciamma has referred to Portrait of a Lady on Fire as a “manifesto about the female gaze.” Few directors have embraced the idea of women’s autonomy as radically as she has; in this film, the consequences of men’s authority are omnipresent, but women take the reins, and their isolation becomes a measure of their freedom. Indeed, the film creates, for a time, a world in which its main characters can exist nearly free of male scrutiny. For a long, exquisite stretch, Marianne and Héloïse do almost nothing but look at each other: the artist observing the subject, the subject beginning to return her gaze, their relationship unhurriedly developing and deepening and taking on erotic tension.
Sciamma presents the romance between Marianne and Héloïse within a frame of Marianne’s memories of it. The film begins some unspecified time after its main events, with Marianne’s female pupils sketching their teacher in class, and then discovering her portrait of Héloïse, skirts ablaze. Near the conclusion, Marianne views in a salon a portrait of Héloïse, now a wife and mother, by another artist. It seems that Marianne has managed to make a life of considerable freedom for herself, although she remains haunted by the love that might have been.
But even though we barely glimpse men in the film, their power to control the fates of women can never fully be shaken off. Because of her aristocratic status, Héloïse has no choice but to ultimately marry her wealthy suitor, and the lovers’ time together must end. Marianne has a fairly unusual degree of independence for a woman in the 1770s—making her own living as a portrait painter, traveling alone, living alone, it seems—but we can guess that this liberty has been made possible at least in part by the success of her artist father, the training he gave her, and the fact that she will inherit his studio. We learn that she has submitted her work for exhibition under his name. And indeed, Marianne must internalize the male gaze when making portraits of women like Héloïse for men’s consumption.
Héloïse’s mother is the film’s fierce miniature study of the ways women have often had to internalize patriarchy and act to further its aims. Valeria Golino as the countess is a lovely, albeit stern, enforcer of the Lacanian law of the father. The fact that no man is physically present to command her actions (we are told nothing of the count) makes her tormented efficacy all the more arresting—and devastating. For her, the isolation of the rocky island represents exile, offering none of the feminine intimacy it does the lovers, or the maid Sophie and the community of village women, members of which we briefly meet at an outdoor celebration and in an abortion scene. “She was waiting for me,” the countess says wistfully of the imposing visage in her own bridal portrait. The painting idealized her, an idealization that has turned bitter, if we consider that its favorable impression led to her entrapment. The austerity of the landscape and the family residence reinforces our initial impression of the place as a wintry prison (I kept thinking of Napoleon on Elba, and of windswept moors and dark interiors in Victorian novels). It is the countess’s absence for most of the film that allows for Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie’s cozy idyll, though they know it must end with her return and the completion of the portrait.
“It is the muse speaking up that sets off the transformation of the relationship between her and the artist into a true meeting of the minds, which can then bloom into passion.”
Sciamma and the cinematographer Claire Mathon, who also photographed Mati Diop’s Atlantics (2019), convey beautifully the island’s unstable climate. The acuteness of the sunlight outdoors reminds me of the divine brightness in Paul Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon, painted in Brittany, not far from the movie’s setting. Natural light seems to permeate the film from the start, indoors as well as out. The choice to use digital cameras allowed Sciamma and Mathon to capture interior scenes in much lower light than might otherwise have been possible, contributing a great deal to the painterly quality of the images. A cool light seeps into the study where Marianne sets up her canvases when she must paint at night, from her mind’s eye, and into Marianne’s visions of Héloïse emerging from the dark in a white gown. The startling glow of that whiteness—like that of the peasants’ bonnets in Gauguin—is almost blinding. The film weaves a series of oppositional ambiences: wet and dry, fiercely lit and swathed in shadows, warm and cold. On Héloïse’s first walk with Marianne as chaperone, the dunes are buffeted by strong, dry winds. And yet the morning mist offers a welcome shelter from the glare of the sun, and creates images that echo the early one of the wet canvases. That coolness is offset by the warmth of the fireplace in the kitchen where Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie pass much of their time in close camaraderie, playing cards, cooking together (in a subversion of the expectations of their class), and telling stories. Fire appears as domestic hearth, as premonition of passion (especially in the bonfire scene in the village), and, again, as a homely, comforting blaze, during the abortion that Marianne and Héloïse help Sophie to procure.
Sciamma imbues the abortion scene with uncanny intimacy. Sophie’s holding the tiny hand of the midwife’s baby during the procedure is one of the fiercest feminist gestures I’ve seen in film in recent years. “Look,” Héloïse commands Marianne. Back at the mansion, they pull a mattress to the floor, and by the fire’s glow, Marianne paints Sophie, still flushed from pain, with Héloïse posing as the midwife. Héloïse’s order suggests that art can be an act of solidarity—a meaningful encounter with another. But perhaps it also means that art cannot be truly great without risk, of breaking new aesthetic ground or of touching a raw nerve. Sciamma has said that a line in L’événement, a memoir by the French writer Annie Ernaux about an illegal abortion she had in 1963, was an inspiration for this scene in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. “I do not believe there exists a Workshop of the Backstreet Abortionist in any museum in the world,” Ernaux writes wistfully. Paint what we really see, Héloïse seems to be telling Marianne—a potent challenge.
Although Héloïse steps behind the canvas of her own portrait to judge its attributes, Marianne does not relinquish all her artistic authority. Only one hand wields the brush. Héloïse’s brilliance lies in recognizing her latent power as an inspiration and source, and demanding that her physical, earthy presence, and her despair, not be denied by art but instead allowed to fuel and dictate its form. Marianne’s disquietude about capturing the essence of her subject—does it lie in the sculptural folds of the dress, the slanting of the light, the positioning of the hands, the forceful softness of the earlobe?—communicates representation as not just an aesthetic quest but also a philosophical one. Each time Marianne steadies her gaze, her muse’s piercing blue eyes defiantly peer back at her. “Is this how you see me?” Héloïse asks incredulously, after her first portrait is finished. It is the muse speaking up that sets off the transformation of the relationship between her and the artist into a true meeting of the minds, which can then bloom into passion.
This daring to look, and look back, is represented in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie read and discuss. Did Eurydice bid Orpheus to turn around for her own sake, rather than just in order to free him? And did his genius owe as much to their tragic parting as it did to his talent? The muse is inextricable from the sense of loss. Marianne, too, has visions of Héloïse at her back. In these apparitions, Héloïse’s gown shimmers with the luscious light of El Greco’s garments, or of the gowns in John Singer Sargent’s portraits of society women. It’s a dazzle that is also ghostly. It hints that perhaps art itself is a kind of haunting—a transmutation of life into something else, an antidote to death. Once Héloïse’s betrothal is sealed and she submits to trying on her wedding gown, Marianne promptly departs; at the last minute, Héloïse bids her to turn, so that her image, as the lost beloved, can be fixed in Marianne’s mind.
The two lovers almost meet again, twice. Attending a painting salon, Marianne—the only woman painter there—comes across that portrait of Héloïse as a married woman and mother. This formal image of maternity is far from the humbler, truer painting of the scene inside the midwife’s hut that they recreated together. Later, Marianne sees Héloïse again, at a concert in Milan, and cannot take her eyes off her. As the camera slowly closes in on Héloïse—crying silently, giving in to desolate spasms, and then beginning to laugh—Sciamma and Mathon forge, in this sublime finale, a bristling vision of womanhood. Héloïse, in her prime, seems to take full stock of her loneliness, but her recollection, like Eurydice’s, is inhabited by the once sweet presence of her lover. She bathes in Vivaldi’s notes, perhaps remembering the risk that she once took. Thanks to this image, I’ll never look the same way at the paintings, by Mary Cassatt and others, of lone women in opera houses and concert halls. I’ll always wonder how many ardent fires burned—how many were extinguished—before the last soaring note of whatever music they were hearing. And yet Portrait of a Lady on Fire offers enduring images not just of longing, or of resilience, but also of creation. Héloïse suffers, but she also exults—she is her own creation and creator. Her vision sets her world ablaze.