French director Céline Sciamma’s historical lesbian romance paints a transfixing and emotional portrait.
Characteristic of its title, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a romanticist painting in cinematic form. Céline Sciamma’s directorial style channels the hypnotic allure of a painting. Audiences are invited to immerse in the mastery of its composition—from the interwoven cinematographic shades of light and dark, to the subjects’ emotions on display, to the director’s use of symbolism and mystery.
Set in the 18th century, the story takes place on the coast of Brittany, France—an isolated part of the country where acts of taboo (like same-sex relationships) can escape surveillance. The picturesque backdrop of the French seaside sets the stage for a quiet, yet tension-filled romance between two women—a young painter and her enigmatic subject. Céline Sciamma crafts a meditative dreamscape that slowly liberates the highs of love and passion, though only for a moment.
Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young artist, is commissioned to paint the portrait of an Italian noblewoman’s daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The portrait will be sent to Héloïse’s potential suitor in Milan in order to entice his interest in marriage. Marianne was not the first artist commissioned for the wedding portrait; Héloïse had refused to sit for the previous artist and had their work destroyed. Héloïse was at a vulnerable state after reeling from the death of her sister.
Marianne’s task, then, is to pose as Héloïse’s walking companion and paint her in secret. The best opportunity from Marianne to study Héloïse’s physique is during their promenades on the beach, and soon enough, Héloïse begins to take notice of Marianne’s long glances in her direction.
Merlant and Haenel possess a hungering chemistry for each other—Merlant’s curious and tender Marianne to Haenel’s sharp and broody Héloïse. As soon as the two characters lock eyes, their attraction became inevitable.
Key to the effectiveness of their romance is the female gaze, where its displays of eroticism avoid a voyeuristic lens. Typically with lesbian films (most notoriously with Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour), the love scenes can be exploited by the male gaze; they are directed to induce infatuation among the audience, where the emotions take a back seat to sexual acts. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, however, is close to devoid of male perspectives, where the only four major speaking roles are women.
The film’s female gaze comes in multiple layers, both in Marianne’s gaze of her subject and Sciamma’s directorial gaze for the story. In both cases, the artistry wins out. Sciamma stimulates desire by having it linger through quiet moments until it builds to a crescendo.
Through it all, the story is an emotional reckoning within the stillness. It’s that of a delicate love graced by a short-lived bliss. For a story that was supposed to take place centuries ago, it was a film about being in the present.