Part confessional, part fantastical and burning with underlying eroticism, French director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire relishes in the far-reaching history of women—their relationships, their unique predicaments, the unrelenting bond that comes with feeling uniquely understood—while also grappling with the patriarchal forces inherent in determining the social mores that ultimately restrict their agency.
The film, which takes place sometime before the French Revolution in the late 18th century, introduces us to Marianne (Noémie Merlant), an artist commissioned to paint the portrait of an aristocratic young woman named Heloïse (Adèle Hannel), who has been removed from her studies at a convent after her sister’s death on a remote island in Brittany. Heloïse’s portrait, once completed, will be sent to Milan—where her suitor will covet it until his betrothed arrives.
Completely resistant to the idea of marriage, Heloïse has sabotaged previous attempts at painters capturing her portrait, leaving Marianne with a difficult assignment. She must not reveal to Heloïse that she has been tasked with painting her, instead posing as a companion for afternoon walks, memorizing the details of Heloïse’s features and toiling on the portrait in secret.
But Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not another trite meditation on the relationship of an artist and a muse—Heloïse is less muse than a landscape that Marianne must carefully study and quickly replicate if she wants to receive the handsome sum she has been promised. Hands, fingernails and the intricacies of the ears are less inspiration than pesky attributes that must be elegantly conveyed.
Actually, it’s Marianne’s straddling of the roles of artist and companion that allows Heloïse’s personality to envelop Marianne’s thoughts—she is not a still life, but rather a complicated woman whose plight ultimately becomes sympathetic to the painter. She begins to feel conflicted about the very art that she is creating, knowing that it will result in the loss of Heloïse’s personal freedom.
The class distinctions between Marianne and Heloïse also point to an interesting exploration of the power dynamics at play within the muse/artist dichotomy. While Marianne is not as wealthy as Heloïse’s family, her ability to acquire her father’s business means that she will not have to marry if she does not find love—a scenario that is out of the question for Heloïse.
Even more beguiling about the relationship between Marianne and Heloïse is that it is somewhat emblematic of Sciamma’s relationship with Hannel—the two publicly announced their relationship back in 2014, and amicably separated shortly before the filming of Portrait. The fact that the film is structured as a flashback of Marianne’s in itself points to the possibility of the film being a cathartic and soft rumination on the two’s former relationship.
Take another recent film that draws from the complicated power dynamics of a director’s real-life romantic relationship, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. Loosely based on Anderson’s marriage to Maya Rudolph, the film, although subverting many clichés of past depictions of artist/muse relationships, ultimately concludes with the dynamic intact. Sciamma has no interest in following the oft-petty conflicts between creative types and their romantic partners, instead opting to present a bigger picture of a relationship that is forged out of the climactic act of knowing another person, not just feeling inspired by what they mean for one’s art.
Even more powerful than Sciamma’s portrayal of a feminine portrait of solidarity and desire is the statement that art is not exclusive to those who make it. The appreciation of art is present in every character, from the bleary-eyed introspection of Heloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino) concerning her own marriage portrait to the insight of maid Sophie (Luana Bajrami) into the Grecian myth of Eurydice and Orpheus. Marianne’s portrait of Heloïse is less passion than craft—in fact, there is an argument to be made that Marianne is, perhaps, her own muse, only able to unlock her own emotions surrounding art after completing a small, intimate sketch of her disrobed body for Heloïse as a parting gift after they consummate their desire.
Looming over the film is an aching reminder that while women have always exercised agency in whatever capacity they could, the spectre of patriarchy continues to proscribe what women are able to hold for themselves.
Director: Céline Sciamma
Writer: Céline Sciamma (screenplay)
Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami
Release Date: February 14, 2020 (wide)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.