Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★½

I knew that I had just seen something special in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” after leaving the theater for the first time. The great movies that affect me the most stick with me and continue to occupy space (in a good way) in the corners of mind as I work to put the pieces together, decipher the messages, and connect the themes that have been presented. And if I go to see a film at the theater more than once, then I know that I’m dealing with something special. The manner in which romance is conveyed in this film, through fleeting glances or words spoken amongst the characters that evolve from ambiguous decelerations of love into untethered affirmations of desire demonstrate an urgency and a realness that’s lacking in most romantic dramas these days. It’s likely that the parties involved favor convenience and genre formulas over the organic manner in which love itself is known to originate. 

Sciamma favors the organic approach and when Marianne arrives to the sea swept island, it is not in search of love, but commission. She’s there to paint a portrait of a young woman, Heloise, who’s arranged to be married to an unnamed gentleman from Milan. That is, if her potential suitor approves of the portrait of his bride to be. The idea of consent, just the mere thought of it, from Heloise regarding this arrangement is non-existent, and the women in the film mostly accept this as the rules that they are bound by. But it’s also these same conventions that allow the romance that develops to be that much sweeter. And it makes the parting even more bitter. 

The moments between Marianne’s arrival and her departure are what make this film special in my mind. Heloise is definitely the more dynamic of the two and her overtures towards Marianne are at times subtle, like when she returns from her daily walk, and while speaking to her soon to be lover, says “In solitude I felt the liberty you spoke of. But I also felt your absence.“ And at other times it’s very direct and to the point. “You dreamt of me?” says Marianne during a particularly heated moment. “No. I thought of you.” replies Heloise. It’s a statement that is profound in its recognition of the fact that this is a great love that exists not in some fantasy world, but in the here and now and despite society’s objections to their union. A hierarchy between the lovers is nonexistent, even though power structures are clearly in play. But they are never exploited as this would reduce their relationship to nothing more than the everyday hetero coupling that they are seeking freedom from. 

And regarding the patriarchy and men in their lives, aside from the passengers who accompany Marianne on her journey to the island and a another unnamed man who arrives near the end of her stay, the film is nearly absent of any male romantic or authority figures, although their presence is always felt, given the social mores of the day. Sciamma gives the women on the island room to breathe, freeing them from the male gaze and allowing them to not only be the bearer of meaning in the film, but also the maker of it, to paraphrase the British film critic Laura Mulvey. Sciamma probably kept Mulvey’s words in the back of her mind while crafting this screenplay and establishing the dynamics of the their relationship because I had a different experience while watching this film — especially during the films most intimate moments. I had a feeling that these images weren’t designed for my viewing pleasure as a man. And that’s ok because it’s one of the great parts about the film. I hope that future viewings and additional film studies will allow me to understand why because the women and images on screen are beautiful, but Sciamma’s trained eye and direction have structured them in a way that subverts the traditional desires that would normally accompany such images if the film was directed by a man. 

There’s also a question that I’ve been tossing around over the past couple of days. Why a portrait? Why not a poem, a song, or a letter? Quite simply, the act of seeing oneself in this form is therapeutic. The early portrait of Heloise by the unnamed male artist reflects her complete discomfort with the painter and the process of subjecting herself to the gaze of one man in order to be judged as a potential mate by an unnamed other. Her initial impression and response to Marianne is somewhat similar at first, and the two even disagree on her visage for a brief moment in a small but significant squabble which sees them debate the merits of art without conviction. But eventually a transformation takes place as Marianne allows the representation of herself to be placed into the hands of another. Rather than it being an act of submission that most women find themselves in as these plots run their course, this film demonstrates that in the right hands, something more substantial and fruitful can develop when submission isn’t the ultimate goal. The two women seek something more delicate and coveted than that, which is the trust of one another during their brief, but rapturous romance. Sciamma herself believes it to be true as well. “Consent,” Sciamma stated in a recent interview, “is sexy.”

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