Marianne, the artist and main character of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, invites us to know her immediately. Look at the way I sit, she says. Take time to look at me while I pose. Look at the way I hold my hands, she says, before her fist involuntarily clenches at the sight of an old painting of hers. A scene later Marianne is no longer posing, but we take time to look at her face when she sees her painting equipment go over the side of a boat. We see her foot find purchase on the boat’s edge, we see the briefest flicker of uncertainty, and we feel we know her a little better when she dives into the water.
How well can one really know another, though? Even under constant observation, even if the subject is unaware of the observer’s gaze, can that space between ever fully be bridged? Sciamma’s Portrait, a brilliant and surefooted romance captured passionately onscreen, asks this of Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The latter is introduced first under a figurative veil of secrecy — we’re told that the last painter who attempted Héloïse’s portrait was “unable to finish” — and then under a literal one, provided by a black cloak and a series of obscure camera angles. We’re with Marianne the whole time, wondering about Héloïse and her secrets.
In actuality, though, everything we hear about Héloïse ends up being the simple truth. Having recently left the convent, Héloïse’s sheltered life is now pivoting suddenly to a betrothed marriage of which she wants no part. The completion of a portrait of her is one of the last things she’ll do as a “free woman” (a phrase which the film calls into question), and so Marianne is tasked with painting her without her knowing. Despite having observed and lived with Marianne extensively before ever catching a glimpse of her subject, the painter’s secret is actually more significant than Héloïse’s. We just happen to be in on it.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire feels like a secret in and of itself. The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival back in May, taking home several awards including Best Screenplay, but it’s only now getting a meaningful theatrical release in the States. The lucky few who got to see it last year spoke about it with reverence, hailed it as a masterpiece, and awarded it pole position on their year-end Top 10 lists. I remember a filmgoer I met at a festival in November telling me that his third-favorite film of the year was The Lighthouse and the second was Parasite. I waited, then gave him the satisfaction: “What’s first?” He glanced around furtively as if divulging the location of a lost treasure: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
Sciamma’s film is a story about two individuals fleetingly becoming one before tragically separating again. And so the filmmaking, like Marianne‘s painting, reflects the life of its subjects. Marianne and Héloïse rarely share the frame in the first act; the sole instance is one wherein Marianne repeatedly obscures our view of Héloïse:
Later, a behind-the-shoulder tracking shot follows Héloïse before an identical instance follows Marianne. But once the two grow closer they share the screen more and more, with the first occurrence framed as if a portrait unto itself. Héloïse even notes their interchangeability:
Nearing the film’s end, a moment of true symmetry is couched into a pivotal scene. Marianne and Héloïse are lying in bed, facing each other, the bird’s-eye camera looking down on them from above. Marianne tells Héloïse about the first time she wanted to kiss her, and Héloïse alludes to the same, hinting at her own moment, about to release it into the space between them…
She never does. The scene cuts and from that point Marianne and Héloïse have precious few moments left together. There’s a severe and intentional feeling of incompleteness in the last act of Portrait, unrequited secrets, love left hanging. That promise of symmetry and Portrait’s building toward lends power to what might have on the page been a more rote romance. The beginning of the film has a bookend, a “present-day” framing device that seems as if Marianne is relating the plot to us. But at the end of Portrait there’s no second bookend, no neat finish, no symmetry.
“How do we know when it’s done?” Héloïse asks of her portrait. “At one point,” shrugs Marianne, “we just stop.” That seems too quaint for Sciamma’s achievement here, which breathes confidence in every frame, every character, every exchange. Even the film’s nearly-symmetrical poster (above) probes the space between two people, a painted fire uniting them. It’s the rare film that reaches beyond itself regardless of where your focus might be; amidst this conversation revolving around visual and narrative symmetry, Pinnland Empire highlights Portrait‘s symmetry with another film entirely in Bergman’s Persona. You could do this kind of deep diving ad nauseam with Sciamma’s film, albeit in the shadow of that everpresent question: after all of that observation and investigation, could you ever fully know it? Perhaps not. But Portrait of a Lady on Fire will undoubtedly have moved you along the way. And some yet-to-be-discovered secrets might be what makes you fall in love.
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