Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019, Céline Sciamma)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
There is a peculiar convergence that only seldom appears, in the field of cinema at least, between the emphatically universal and the deeply personal. Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film that, to put it very crudely, is born of the heart; but the particular brewings, contemplations, feelings it conjures up happen to touch on enough corners of the essence of humanity that it becomes the sought-after movie that explores virtually every strand of a lived experience: beauty, despair, humor, mystery, anger. An eighteenth century period film, set in France and focused on a portrait painter given the impossible task of capturing a subject without her knowledge, eventually encompasses a love story that has the breadth of few others in even great films, because it is fashioned organically and secretly but also believably; it is built like few other movie romances upon privacy. And when it blooms, Sciamma and her cast prove themselves as much concerned with the new manner in which the world (in these characters’ conceptions of it) appears to fall under this enrapturing spell as they are with the specific mechanisms of change they experience themselves. In other words, it is an externalized depiction of love, which is why it is also, crucially, a story about art.
It’s also why the film’s communicative quintessence is so far-reaching. It’s necessary to step a bit lightly on this topic; this is a movie about a romantic and sexual relationship between two women, and the specifics of living as women and certainly as women in love drive the entirety of the narrative. There’s no doubt that the film’s existence and its success, despite its faroff setting, are a sign of the times and of the breaking of long-strict boundaries within filmmaking as a craft; the film does not presume a primarily or even largely male audience, and it does not seek to amuse male curiosity or libido. It’s in multiple respects a politically potent and righteous film, including in its handling of abortion (one of the film’s most striking, unforgettable sequences, and one whose rarefied air of hidden truth it makes a point of underlining) and obviously also its treatment of same-sex relationships in the context of an incomparably different time. At the same time, however, the film also takes pains to depict its characters’ tumultuous connection as being deeply familiar; for all the movie’s ideological crusading, which is important and necessary, what’s just as striking is its warmth — as well as its wit, which comes around naturally in the expected manner of people unfurling to one another, though the most acerbic exchange (“I didn’t know you were an art critic” / “I didn’t know you were a painter”) comes early.
It would be reductive to try and claim that Sciamma is telling a story for everybody; it would be reductive to pretend that the film can say the same things to a straight man that it can (for instance) to an LGBT woman, and I don’t intend to try and co-opt its emotional messages or political statements for my benefit, but there is no way to avoid addressing here that Portrait of a Lady on Fire captures the sweep and intoxication of its characters’ state of mind like scarcely few other works. So many examples of grand cinematic evocations of lust or longing are one-sided; far too many revolve around characters who never seem to say anything and never seem to exist as anything but figurines (see Amélie for an especially annoying example of “love” based on literally nothing). Even a sumptuous film like Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying, which captures the language and urgency of young romance, depends greatly on the separation of its lovers, and Luchino Visconti’s stirring La Notti Bianche is based on the wistful yearnings of a single fleeting night — its lack of ultimate destiny is baked into its glimpse at a single evening’s worth of bliss.
Portrait is about a fleeting moment too, but it’s one in which the couple (Noémie Merlant as the painter Marianne, Adèle Haenel as the initially reluctant poser Héloïse) is aware from the beginning of the precise limits of their time and, as women presumably often had to, harness it to its limits. Additionally, it is difficult to avoid for anyone who’s ever enjoyed a visit with a long-distance partner how impeccably Sciamma captures every aspect of the resulting excitement and the desperate staving off of the end: regrets over wasted time, the minute descriptions and memorization of one another’s body language, the struggles to keep eyes open on the last night, the sense of every minute passing meaningfully, and the horrible goodbyes. In this five-day microcosm arrives some sense of the natural life cycles of a couple, unnaturally denied the two of them by their gender or, maybe more accurately, by their respective stations in life. (It’s pointed out that Marianne lives with something like freedom thanks to her job apprenticing for her father, while Héloïse’s fate is sealed by her pending marriage into nobility; so whereas the former may live her life in whatever shape she ultimately chooses, Héloïse’s parameters are more severe. This adds another practical hindrance to the already insurmountable taboo of the relationship itself.) They shyly trade the pushing of boundaries back and forth, eventually discover their bodies, mutually form a united front against a crisis (the pregnancy of the maid Sophie, played beautifully by Luàna Bajram) and near the end of their union have an argument that shatters their peace only to be passionately resolved. But none of it is contrived or forced by some invisible screenwriterly land, because as it’s directly noted, they like all lovers “feel they’re inventing something.”
Sciamma’s previous films have largely been concerned with coming of age, specifically among young girls resistant to traditional gender roles, but they have also captured transcendent moments. In Girlhood (whose French title is the much better Bande de Filles), the centerpiece is a magical moment in a hotel room when a group of teenagers drink cheap liquor and listen to Rihanna. The equivalent sequence in Portrait takes place on the beach, when the three central characters gather around with a group of women by a bonfire and sing — a striking, overwhelming moment when Héloïse and Marianne seem to see one another anew, a dress catches on fire and the music persuades us of the perpetual intensity with which the night will live on. This prompts one of several paintings in the film that later appear, impassioned bids to use art to extend and expand life. There is no explaining what this moment means; you know, as though you were looking at a painting, by seeing — and, as it happens, by hearing.
The commingling of love and art, and the breaking down of the boundaries between artist and subject (helped along by the absence of a gender imbalance), create the meaning of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, because in every respect art becomes a tool for memory and an escape for loss. The portrait whose creation drives the narrative is neither here nor there, except in the sense that Marianne and Héloïse are relatively pleased with it because they created it together, not just by collaboration but by falling in love, with the fading of lines between professionalism and carnality thus suggested. But the story is really told by the painting that prompts the film’s initial flashback, of Héloïse’s dress aflame; the erotic self-portrait Marianne draws in the pages of Héloïse’s book; the communication from a noblewoman to her former lover via conventional portrait some years later; and eventually the use of music as a retreat into memory, and perhaps emotional and sexual release, which prompts the film’s indescribable final shot.
It’s worth coming back momentarily to the absence of men, which is highly important to the entire film but especially to the sequence following the departure of the Countess (Valeria Golino), Héloïse’s mother, who hired Marianne to paint the portrait — a spell neatly broken by the actual physical presence of a man in the final scenes at the château. In that sense, perhaps just as important as the absence of men is the absence of authority; left to their own devices, not just Héloïse and Marianne but also Sophie become fully realized versions of themselves, uncorrupted by the outside world and able to relate to one another fully as equals without the hindrance of hierarchy or patriarchy. This same experience grounds the rare moments of fulfillment in Girlhood — the point unmistakably being that, as Héloïse said when talking about the convent she left, egalitarianism is “a pleasant feeling.” In the absence of outside restrictions, these people become themselves, which includes falling in love, yes, but also includes sitting around a table reading about Orpheus and Eurydice, playing cards, singing by a bonfire. The enclosure of obligatory day-to-day life as it begins its systematic sucking away of all this living for recreation and creation can seem only tragic, the destruction of so much potential life — and, of course, art.
Sciamma’s script is an impeccable collision of themes with nearly infinite potential, touching on its various ideas with grace and depth and not a hint of overreaching; this is transferred to her projection of it onto the screen, which is miraculous in its passion but is also impeccably controlled. But obviously she owes plenty to her actors, who intentionally do more to define these characters than the script possibly can, and all of the performers but particularly Haenel add things to the story that cannot be written. This is the old Alfred Hitchcock theory of writing “in camera,” whereby the actors play as much of a role in deciding the final essence of the characters as the screenplay. The dialogue, apart from a few heavy scenes, is sparse, especially as the film goes on and the reality of what’s happening goes too far beyond the verbal to be appreciated in that medium; laughing says more, as does silence.
All that said, this is a masterfully directed and realized film, and it’s both one of the best-looking color films in many years and perhaps the best case that has yet been made for digital over celluloid. The lushness of the colors and visuals are necessarily considering the subject matter, but the awe they strike is still quite unexpected, and adds to the sense that this is a movie that intends not just to talk about love and art but to attempt to define their coalescence. Nearly every scene in Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a terrific idea gorgeously presented, but they fit together to create a genuine cry of heartfelt zeal. In The Trouble with Harry (1956), Hitchcock quietly posited the artist as the highest savior of humanity, whose lives fall into line as a result of his input: everything in its place. For Sciamma, the artist herself must contend with needs that are destined to be forever denied, but funneling those maddening memories into her work causes them to live again, and causes even their miseries to become ethereal, welcome, necessary — in the absence, naturally, of what she actually desires, and deserves.