Written by Veritas
Marianne (Noémie Merlant) sits straight in front of her class as her students look at an old painting of hers. The film flashes back years as she tells us its title: Portrait de la jeune fille en feu.
On an isolated island in eighteenth-century France, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) is set to be married off to a Milanese man after she returns from the convent following her sister’s suicide. She is not keen on the idea and refuses to pose for her wedding portrait despite several attempts by her mother, the Countess. Finally, Marianne is hired to be her companion on her daily walks except she will study Héloïse the whole time and paint her in secret, from memory.
As they go on walks by the ocean, Marianne takes sharp and often long glances at Héloïose at every chance, trying to imprint a detailed picture in her mind. She wanders away from Héloïose’s sight at times to make quick and rough sketches as her visual memory can only be so strong per se. Héloïse knows she’s staring at her but she doesn’t know why. She looks back—only for Marianne to look sheepishly away every time. When Héloïse speaks of her love for music and Marianne plays Vivaldi’s “Summer” on the harpsichord for her, it is the first time their glances meet and linger, making way for the rest to follow—memories of which the pair will reminisce for years to come.
It is not long before Héloïse asks Marianne, “When you’re looking at me, who am I looking at?” and the artist’s gaze isn’t merely observation anymore and the muse is no longer the only one being studied. Through Céline Sciamma’s masterful writing and direction, we see the powers shift and the observation turn to longing. A tale of forbidden love—” Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is the manifestation of budding desire. With no background score, romance, and rhythm, Sciamma builds it all diegetically. In her words, it is as much a story of equality as it is a love story.
The unique artistic vision of the all-female crew is made clear as we progress through each scene and the story unfolds. We are told barely anything about the characters but from the pacing and the way the camera moves, they feel oddly familiar. The mise-en-scène throughout the film is perfect for the at first subtle and later all-encompassing desire between the two women. Sciamma succeeds in her telling of the story that as Marianne’s initial gazes of obligation are picked up on by Héloïse and reciprocated, the artist and the muse become collaborators. To her mother’s surprise, Héloïse agrees to pose for the portrait after Marianne scraps the initial portrait following Héloïse’s disdain. With their gazes at each other now no longer fleeting, the tension in the space between grows into longing and love.
The beautifully crafted “Portrait of the Lady on Fire” rightfully claims its place as a great work of art in the history of film with its themes of queer love and loss and as a manifesto of the female gaze. Her vision of equality is reinstated when you realize there are no male characters in this 2-hour long film. Within the theme of forbidden love on a picturesque 1770s French island, the storylines join together to comment on the effects of patriarchy at the time.
Whether the hurried and quietly accepted farewell of lovers and Marianne’s most unexaggerated reminiscence moves you or not, the visual beauty and framing of the film as captured by cinematographer Claire Mathon are unlike any other. For its wonderful addition to queer representation in media, “Portrait of the Lady on Fire” was awarded the Queer Palm aside from the Best Screenplay Award for writer and director Céline Sciamma at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and has since then been lauded by critics worldwide for the crew’s perfect execution and the universality of its themes. A breakdown of every scene shows how much the film achieves in such a minimal setting, owing to the creative vision and craft of all the leading women.
Veritas is a gay high school student from Dhaka.