Celine Sciamma’s award-winning Portrait of a Lady of Fire (2019), although set in the eighteenth century, is a thoroughly contemporary examination of the role of seeing in art as well as its subversive power. Sciamma’s French-language film, which is available on Prime Video, is a visually gorgeous slow-burner in which sparks fly between an aristocratic woman and the female artist commissioned to paint her.
When Marianne (Noemie Merlant) arrives on an island to create a portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel), she finds a deeply reluctant subject. Heloise’s painting is the older version of photographs passed on to prospective grooms. The better the portrait, the greater the chances of Heloise marrying the Milanese nobleman to whom she has been promised.
But Heloise doesn’t want to marry and doesn’t know that Marianne is a painter. Heloise’s mother (Valeria Golino) suggests a ruse: Marianne is to accompany Heloise on walks, observe her carefully, and paint her from memory.
The visual exchanges between the actors has been vividly lensed by Claire Mathon (she also shot Sciamma’s Petite Maman, which is available on MUBI). Mathon’s clean, precise compositions mimic the points of view of Marianne and Heloise. Mid-close shots reveal the emotional experiences of the women, who are in the throes of a passion that has not yet been socially sanctioned. The night scenes unfold in lambent candlelight.
Their affair unfolds gradually, over conversations about classical music and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The myth plays a key role in the 120-minute narrative.
One of Marianne’s paintings – which she has made under her father’s name since she is working at a time when painters are nearly always men – displays her independent thinking on the moment when Orpheus loses Eurydice after turning around to look at her despite being instructed not to do so.
Sciamma’s inversion of the gaze – usually male, whether in art or cinema – challenges conventions about the portrayal of women. Understanding art better demands that look closely at works to parse their every element for meaning. Sciamma’s movie reveals the secrets that lie in the static, still paintings of women from centuries ago.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire shows the ways in which women break out of the strictures imposed on them in the very spaces that are designed to bind them. If Marianne and Heloise come together through the act of looking closely at one another, viewers too might see the role of women in shaping art differently after watching Sciamma’s brilliantly realised movie.
In one of the most moving scenes, another portrait of Heloise speaks directly to Marianne of the depths of their love. This sequence, like so much else in the movie, invites us to look carefully, draw new meaning from what is being displayed, and marvel at the quiet ways in which women have rebelled over the ages.