I had some thoughts about French director Céline Sciamma’s movie “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and for once instead of trying to shop them around to publications thought I’d just put them here, for whoever might want to read them. The short version is: I liked this movie and it gave me thinky thoughts.
(Caution: below are SPOILERS for the whole movie!)
Like a good slow, moody, ~arthouse movie of the kind I love, this worked on multiple levels, and continued to unravel in my head days after I watched it.
So the plot is very simple: In 18th century France, Marianne is a painter (who learned the craft from her father, a well known, successful painter himself) who’s commissioned to come to a secluded manor to paint an elusive subject. Héloïse, a reclusive young woman who’s spent most of her life in a nunnery, but was yanked out of it after her sister committed suicide, in order to replace her sister as a bride and fulfill the family’s plans, marrying the sister’s fiance.
The portrait is required so that the fiance, who resides in Italy, can approve of Héloïse as the new bride. Without it, the marriage can’t go forward. Heloise’s mother, herself Italian and longing to return to Milan, is adamant to have Héloïse painted, but Héloïse refuses to sit for a portrait, and so previous attempts have failed. Héloïse’s mother hopes Marianne can pose as Héloïse’s companion (Héloïse is not allowed to leave the house alone), going out on long walks together, and secretly paint her.
This is an accurate summary of the plot, but at the same time tells you absolutely nothing about what’s meaningful or important or moving about the movie. Starting with: it’s gorgeous. In that deliberate way where you have a master cinematographer, with an eye, showing you a deliberately beautiful, constructed reality, without any special effects or overly artificial lighting. It’s “old school” gorgeous, just composition, artistic vision, the patience and gall to linger on shots, carefully selected locations and people, and the same post-production values that news images get.
So, on one level it’s moody, beautiful, patient, drawn out, rewarding your attention span with depth and layers.
On the other, it’s just a straightforward love story. The director reportedly wrote this about her break up with an ex, and that’s how this movie feels. Marianne is there to do a job, but she and Héloïse fall for each other, and during a long interlude when Héloïse’s mother is away, they consummate that affair. They violate the rules of artist and subject, blurring all the lines, revealing all their secrets, quite literally trading perspectives.
But ironically, their love affair heals Héloïse sufficiently that she begins to function in the world again, and to remember that her role, her chance in this life, depends on the marriage being offered to her. And so, by loving her, by giving her joy and orgasms, Marianne also draws her, almost inadvertently, to do the thing Héloïse previously refused to do – to model for a portrait. The portrait is only possible because of their love – it is a monument to it. It’s painted in between kisses and caresses and secrets and adventures.
Finally, the portrait is complete, Héloïse’s mother returns, and their romance must come to an end. Héloïse was never the sort to fight her proper role in society, and Marianne is not really the sort to insist that she does, although she does wish and long for Héloïse to do so. But Marianne has her business, as a painter who can make her own income, however modest, and Héloïse is from a different station in life. And so, they say goodbye, because that’s how it works sometimes, things just don’t work out. But they remember each other, fondly, for the rest of their days.
And so that’s another way to summarize this film: a simple, fairly straightforward, even somewhat mundane love story, about two people who come together, experience something very passionate but fairly brief, are changed by it in various ways, and then continue on with their lives. In a way, for a romance between two women, even that is remarkable. Neither one of them is exposed as a deviant, neither one dies, neither one suffers a tragedy as a result of the affair. In fact, the affair is a positive force in both their lives. The plot could have gone similarly if Marianne was a man of low birth who had an interlude with Héloïse before she ultimately decided to marry her intended.
But then there’s also the piles and piles of things the movie layers on top of this romance, and these visuals. And that… that stuff is clever and subtle and like a lot of good art, takes a while to coalesce in your head. It stays with you and continues to burn in your brain. It speaks the language of metaphor, disjointed and visual, open-ended, inviting you to make your own judgements and interpretations.
Héloïse, smiling, sitting patiently while Marianne paints her from behind an easel. “Do you paint nudes?” Héloïse asks – this is after they’re happily sleeping together – and Marianne answers “yes, but only of women.” Héloïse asks if Marianne avoids men out of concern for propriety. Marianne answers that that’s part of it, but mostly it’s that she, as a woman, is not allowed to paint male nudes, to study men’s bodies, because to be an important, significant painter, you have to paint men, and preventing women from studying male models prevents women from gaining notice or notoriety. You have to be able to paint Jesus on the cross, to paint the apostles, to paint Famous Men of Old, and if you can’t do that you’ll always be marginal, and so propriety is leveraged to keep women artists in their place.
(If anyone wants to think how this relates to how the commonly accepted wisdom today is that you have to make films about men to be a successful filmmaker, I’ll just be over here drinking my tea.)
Marianne paints male nudes anyway, of course, in secret, and then submits her paintings to big venues under her father’s name.
Later, Héloïse and Marianne help Héloïse’s young servant, Sophie, the only other person left in the house after Héloïse’s mother leaves, to have an abortion. The father is unknown, but Sophie is carrying a baby she doesn’t want, and trusts her mistress and the painter to help her get rid of it. They try physical exertion, then special herbs, but nothing works. The medicine woman in the village schedules a procedure for Sophie and Héloïse and Marianne go with her, standing in the room as the woman sticks her hand into Marianne’s insides and scrapes out the fetus.
Marianne looks away, but Héloïse chides her. “Look,” she says, pointing at the bed in a small hut, where small children play while Sophie yells in pain as a woman removes a clump of cells from her uterus. Look at this. You, the painter, whose job is to observe and record, to reflect with your mastery the world around us, who has come to my house to record my features so precisely. Look at this, don’t avert your eyes.
Later, Héloïse wakes Sophie up in the middle of the night, lays her on a blanket on the floor in front of the fire, and puts her arm between Sophie’s legs. A posed reconstruction, models performing for an artist. “Paint this,” Héloïse says to Marianne.
Because this, this shit should be hanging in museums. These unseen lives, these ordinary, mundane experiences that women live with and know so well, these networks, these realities of women’s bodies, that are never seen or recorded, never passed down in history books, covered up in favor of men’s experience’s, lives, desires.
Paint this, the abortion, the blood, the pain, the everyday nature of it. Paint the constructed, artificially lit, posed version of it. Make it beautiful and artistic. It’s as worthy a subject as any other.
Before they say goodbye, Héloïse tells Marianne that she wants some image of her. Marianne will always have her images of Héloïse, from all the sketches she made of her while working on the portrait. So in return, Marianne takes a small mirror, leans it against Héloïse’s naked thighs, obscuring her pubic hair, and paints herself as she is. Naked, in bed with Héloïse, relaxed, post-coital. She draws the self-portrait in a randomly selected page of one of Héloïse’s books. A secret just between them.
One rainy morning, early in their acquaintance, Marianne offers to play a bit of music for Héloïse, and tentatively plays Vivaldi’s “summer”, from his Four Seasons composition. The music is about calm that’s interrupted by a storm, Marianne explains, it’s passionate, dramatic, emotional.
Years later, Marianne encounters Héloïse at the theater. They sit on different sides of the room, and Marianne observes while Héloïse doesn’t notice her. Instead we see Héloïse sitting in silence and darkness, looking at the stage, while Vivaldi’s music starts playing, and she begins crying, occasionally smiling through the tears. Who will ever know of Héloïse’s true feelings, her life, her affair? Who will ever record it in a history book or a painting or a poem? She will live this entire, full, vivid, emotional life, entirely under the surface of society, under the notice of posterity, of even her peers. And yet her heart is real, her story is real, her emotions and joys and sorrows are real. They are the music we feel, in the audience, looking at Héloïse, the music that moves us, even though she herself doesn’t speak.
Similarly, the other time Marianne sees Héloïse after they part, is when she encounters a painting of her, with Héloïse’s young daughter by her side. In the painting Héloïse is holding a book, her fingers marking the page, the same page number Marianne used to paint a naked self-portrait. It’s a secret message. A painting can travel, in a way that a letter can’t. Héloïse is hoping Marianne will see it somewhere, in a gallery, at an exhibition, and will know that Héloïse remembers, that their time together is still important to her. Marriage, children, status, a different hand painting Héloïse’s face, none of that erases what they had.
Before they share their first kiss, Marianne’s company alone lifts Héloïse’s spirits. They walk along the beach together, the cliffs, the sea, the same route Héloïse’s sister used to walk, the spot where she jumped to her death. But instead of being silent, remote, sullen, Héloïse begins to open up. She talks, she shares, she asks questions. She comes alive again, bit by bit. She trusts Marianne, enjoys her company.
They both go with Sophie one evening, to a gathering of the village women, in a field, by a bonfire. The other women, much poorer than both Héloïse and Marianne, chat and exchange stories, and finally all sing together, their voices carrying through the stillness of the night.
Héloïse is doing well, at this point. She’s fine. She’s functional. Even her mother thinks she’s much improved, and behaves almost like herself. She has already agreed to sit for a portrait. She sees Marianne as a friend and has forgiven her deceit.
Everyone stands by the fire, including Héloïse. And when she walks away from it, a small flame has caught her dress. It begins to eat at her skirts, the smoke rising to her face. Héloïse doesn’t look down, doesn’t scream, doesn’t ask for help, doesn’t move. She stands still, her eyes locked with Marianne’s, her face emotionless.
Someone notices the fire, yells, women jump on Héloïse, knocking her down, putting out the fire before it consumes her. This is what Héloïse is like when she’s fine. When everything appears to be normal.
Later, Marianne chooses to paint this moment, to remind herself of Héloïse. It’s the painting she titles “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, and keeps hidden, until one of her students digs it up out of storage. It’s the thing she wants to remember, and doesn’t at the same time. Héloïse, quietly burning up, invisible, calm.
The act of looking, of seeing, can be so radical and so profound, and the film demonstrates how gendered it is, so often, how mired in power dynamics. What man would ever find himself in the spaces Marianne does – in a gathering of village women in a dark field? In the room where an abortion is being performed? In bed, sleeping fully clothed, with a young woman and her servant?
There’s a scene where Marianne offers to switch places with Héloïse, while she’s painting her. Héloïse will go and stand behind the easel, and Marianne will pose in the center of the room. It’s echoed in a scene where Marianne dons Héloïse’s dress and paints herself, using a mirror, because one doesn’t need the true subject of a portrait to paint fabric faithfully. But Marianne can do this, can switch places like this, change her perspective so easily, because she and Héloïse are both women. The blurring of boundaries between artist and subject would not be so easy, otherwise.
Anyway, I’m still thinking about this movie. I’m sure I’ll think of more ways it was interesting and clever as time goes on. I’m sure if I watched it again I’d see different things as well, or reconsider what I saw the first time.
If you’ve made it this far – please go see it in the theater, if you haven’t already. Nothing I’ve written will ruin the fun for you, I promise.