One of the first things we see in Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a portrait of a lady on fire. The mystery of who she is and how she caught light is cleared up fairly quickly, but then the writer-director Céline Sciamma likes to establish one set of expectations only to satisfy them prematurely or subvert them altogether. When Marianne (Noémie Merlant) leaps fully clothed from a row-boat in the middle of the ocean, she is not trying to drown herself like Holly Hunter in The Piano, but to rescue her canvases, which have fallen overboard. She is a kind of 18th-century double agent, armed with a paintbrush rather than a pistol, and she has been invited to a remote island near Brittany to immortalise Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) without this young woman’s knowledge. Tricky, you might think. How will she explain the easel for starters?
What she must do is to study Héloïse closely while maintaining the cover story that she has been hired by the woman’s mother to provide companionship during a difficult time, Héloïse’s sister having recently flung herself from a cliff. Héloïse has been promised to a nobleman in Milan, and the clandestine portrait requested by her mother is intended to seal the deal. There is an element of salesmanship, then, in Marianne’s commission, but also a hint of pimping-by-proxy. She is being paid to flog Héloïse to a man she doesn’t want to marry.
What starts as a detective story, with Marianne going undercover, soon blurs into romance once she and her subject go, well, under the covers. Even then, the film never entirely sheds its gothic trappings, what with Marianne being prone to visions of Héloïse in her bridal dress – a Dickensian touch (the ghost of weddings future?) that also invites sacrilegious thoughts of The Sixth Sense (“I see wed people”).
Two women stuck on an island, one in a traumatised state, the other trying to tease from her an intimacy she is reluctant to give – this happens also to be a description of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, and Sciamma repeats that film’s most famous image, in which two faces, one seen in profile and the other head-on, form halves of a single unit. When Héloïse looks reproachfully down the lens at us, there’s also an echo of Bergman’s groundbreaking shot of Harriet Andersson staring into the camera, and our souls, in Summer with Monika.
Haenel retains a distinct sternness even in repose, the risk being that Héloïse’s inevitable discovery of Marianne’s subterfuge will leave the actor nowhere to go emotionally. A face that remains consistently grave has surely exhausted its capacity to express disapproval. Not so: the single crease that appears above the bridge of her nose is as dramatic as a crack zigzagging down the brow of Brâncusi’s Sleeping Muse.
Men in the film exert an unreasonable influence on women’s lives, but Sciamma, well established as a chronicler of young female experience in the likes of Girlhood and Tomboy, largely denies them the luxury of visibility. She is not the first director to keep men more or less out of the picture: George Cukor’s 1939 comedy The Women features no male performers whatsoever, though it does end with Norma Shearer’s capitulation to her off-screen husband. No one could accuse Sciamma of making any such concession. When a man appears near the end, it signals the breaking of a wondrous spell. The Milanese suitor is never shown and nor is the father of the child that the maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), is carrying. Marianne’s predecessor, whose attempts to paint Héloïse were thwarted, also goes unseen, though we glimpse his abortive portrait, which has a mud-coloured cyclone where the face should be. Marianne later has cause to defile one of her own unsatisfactory attempts, clawing at Héloïse’s features and in the process accidentally pre-empting Francis Bacon’s “screaming pope” series by nearly 200 years.
In quieter moments, Marianne’s brush renders Héloïse’s body in fine caressing strokes long before she gets to do the same thing with her lips and hands. The film is at its strongest when Sciamma challenges the conventional dynamic between sitter and artist, observed and observer, asking where one ends and the other begins (shades of Persona again). This conversation between art and life starts with an ingenious shot of Marianne huddled naked in front of the fire, her knees under her chin, as she dries off after jumping from the boat. On either side of the hearth stand two damp white canvases, so that her body forms the central panel in a triptych.
The movie could justifiably be accused of chocolate-box prettiness, and viewers will still be hearing the atmospheric crackling of logs many hours after leaving the cinema. But what we are watching amounts to Marianne’s memories (the flashback structure places a literal frame around the film), and who doesn’t idealise or overheat their past, especially when contemplating a relationship that never had the chance to spoil? Art becomes the beacon that memorialises the love between these women, falling across the decades like a flare dropping through the night sky.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (15)
dir: Céline Sciamma
This article appears in the 26 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy