“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a 2019 French film that masterfully weaves a romantic narrative with the complicated nature between an artist and her muse. The director, Céline Sciamma, received praise at the Cannes International Film Festival where she won the Queer Palm, an award given to LGBTQ+ films, as well as receiving Best Screenplay.
The film takes place in late 18th century France, when an aristocratic mother commissions Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to paint a portrait of her daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel,) as she is going to get married and they need a painting of her to give to the groom.
The conflict arises when it’s revealed that Héloïse isn’t interested in the marriage that is arranged – in fact, she doesn’t even know the person who she is giving her life to. Héloïse’s mother also reveals that her daughter wouldn’t pose for any artist, as to delay the inevitable.
The mother tells Marianne that she must paint Héloïse in secrecy while accompanying her for routine walks, all while remembering the exact curvature of her cheekbones, and the intricacy of different colors within her pupils.
As they spend time together, it’s clear there is some underlying romantic tension between the two – this is hinted from their conversations and the ever-so-important gazes they give each other.
The stares given in this movie are abundant, but never quite the same. Sometimes Marianne is simply staring at Héloïse because she is painting her, but sometimes it seems as if she is lovingly staring at her. It’s a fantastic way to conceal emotions but allude to something greater.
It’s incredible how Sciamma was able to home in on the idea there are different kinds of looks, and how eyes can either welcome someone, or oppress them.
Merlant and Haenel are phenomenal actors, but their use of body language in this film is even more impressive. Actors biting their lips, raising their eyebrows, or even not blinking creates a natural sensation of repressed feelings.
Of course, this stellar imagery cannot be captured without the expert cinematography. There are going to be images one cannot forget – the emerald dress contrasting with the bleak, paint-chipping blue walls of the studio, as well as the white foam of the ocean expanding across the coast as the waves crash into it.
The film is certainly a slow burn, as shots are typically longer so audiences can decipher the characters’ true feelings, and there’s not much of a soundtrack to keep the attention of some viewers.
However, this plays out to be a massive success in terms of the narrative as a whole. By displaying the day-to-day lives of Marianne and Héloïse, Sciamma avoids creating conventional female roles, such as a mother or lover.
Instead, we see women.
The film doesn’t include many male performances, and this felt utterly refreshing. In many ways, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a pro-feminist film in the sense Sciamma shows both women taking control over their lives despite the male authoritative power in place.
For Marianne, she’s worked in a male-dominated field all her life, and it’s clear she’s successful as she’s presented to be an art teacher early in the film. She’s teaching a new generation of female artists to take on the art world and make a name for themselves.
Héloïse, on the other hand, fights in order to maintain control of her own destiny. She refuses to pose for her marriage portrait which ultimately delays her marriage, and relishes the romantic time she gets to spend with Marianne.
Sciamma was also overtly aware of the “male gaze” – the idea the female body can be shot in such a way to appeal to male fantasies. Instead, each sex scene shows an incredible amount of respect toward each actress as well as the natural beauty of the female body.
Toward the end of the film, it’s clear the narrative is much more than just a forbidden love story between two young women, but also a story about the relationship between an artist and their muse.
The film exposes that the muse and the artist have an equal role to play in creating great art. A muse must be at a point in their life in which the final product won’t represent a fleeting feeling, rather an overarching moral character. In this sense, the muse’s inner psyche is just as important as their outward appearance.
The film, to be blunt, is one of the most beautiful LGBTQ+ films I’ve seen to date – and it never felt as if it was trying to capitalize on the fact that it’s part of the genre.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is streamable via Hulu, and if you’re sick of male directors trying to understand the intricacies of gay relationships, then this is the film for you.
Paints a beautiful world with an even more impressive narrative.