The painter’s job is clear: she must paint a version of the young woman that her potential suitor in Milan will treat like the 18th century version of Tinder, except for ‘swipe right’, read ‘marry the young woman you have never met in person, and she doesn’t have a choice in the matter’. The painter’s job is less that of producing enduring art than it is to advertise a product to be sold: the young woman is a commodity and the painter is there to make her into the most alluring commodity possible. Except, in the process of observing the young woman, the painter begins to desire her. The young woman is no longer an object of art, she is the subject of the painter’s longing. But if the painter fails to complete the portrait that will lead to her losing the woman she has fallen for, someone else will be called in to paint the young woman instead. They will lose one another either way – but, in painting the young woman, she can show her for what she truly is. For the painter, loving her subject finally entails the act of relinquishing her.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the French historical drama directed by Céline Sciamma (who, surprisingly, also co-wrote the sweet stop-motion comedy-drama My Life as a Courgette), may sound like the cliché of a French art house movie, but that would be doing it a grave disservice. Its love story between the young painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who makes a living with her art and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), whose portrait she is charged with painting is told with wit, eroticism and nuance. Its depiction of the relationship is layered: at first Marianne must keep her task secret from Héloïse, who resists her role as the bride-to-be whose life has been decided for her. Marianne must observe the subject of her portrait carefully in order to keep Héloïse in the dark, but her glances are soon noticed, and perhaps misinterpreted – or is the painter’s gaze not all that different from the gaze of one who desires? Marianne must also keep her painting secret, so she is left to create a painting based on memory rather than direct observation. While Marianne becomes a companion and even a friend to Héloïse, that relationship is based on a lie of omission, which leaves both women feeling that there is something unaddressed that is constantly between them.
When Marianne finishes her first attempt, she feels she owes it to Héloïse to tell her the truth herself and show her the portrait, which leads to an exchange of delicious, sharp wit, as the subject of the painting, feeling betrayed but, perhaps more so, misrepresented in Marianne’s rather conventional depiction of her, lashes out, stating that she finds little of herself in the portrait, but even less of Marianne, suggesting that the portrait is a betrayal of them both. Marianne hits back with the sarcastic retort, “I didn’t know you were an art critic,” but Héloïse isn’t lost for words herself: “I didn’t know you were a painter.” It is the verbal sparring between the two that is as delightful, and as erotic, as the sensual elements of the story; in fact, all of Sciamma’s protagonists are rarely lost for words. They have rich personalities and internal lives, including Héloïse’s mother, the Countess (Valeria Golino), and their servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). The film not only passes the Bechdel Test easily (there are few men in the film, and only a couple of them get a smattering of dialogue), it does so with an almost Austen-like, nuanced irony.
While watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I found myself reminded of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) from the first scene, as both films begin with a single woman’s journey across the ocean in a skiff filled with men. Like Ada in The Piano, both Marianne and Héloïse look for and find moments of freedom and spaces that they can call their own, although Héloïse knows that as a woman, and doubly so as a woman of noble descent, she will eventually have to accept becoming a token to be traded, and in the long run her life is only her own if she were to put an end to it. While Marianne works on the second, successful portrait that will result in her losing the woman she has come to love, she and Héloïse are given a week outside the strictures of society, without men determining the limitations of their lives. There is a dreamlike, intoxicating quality to the film’s second half as we see what, in another world, could exist between Marianne and Héloïse.
While Portrait of a Lady on Fire does temporarily establish a utopian space where the two women can exist freely, the film never loses sight of the time and society it is set in. Marianne and Héloïse’s accelerated relationship burns as brightly as it does because it is finite. The painting must be finished and Héloïse and Marianne will lose one another. But they leave an imprint on the other that does not fade. The trace of each woman is burnt into the other.