In solitude, I felt the liberty you spoke of. But I also felt your absence.
Set predominantly on a remote island in Brittany towards the end of the eighteenth century, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a delicate rendering of intimacy forged in isolation. Praised by critics as a bewitching celebration of the female gaze, the film tells the story of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), an artist commissioned to paint Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), and the intense relationship that develops between the two women during their time on the island together. At the beginning of the story, Héloïse has recently left a convent and been betrothed to a Milanese nobleman never seen on screen; reluctant to surrender to the engagement, Héloïse refuses to pose for a portrait intended for her intended. Marianne is charged with the task of painting Héloïse in secret, masquerading as a walking companion while she makes covert observations and works on the portrait by night.
For Héloïse, the time spent in a sparsely-furnished house on an isolated island is pervaded with an atmosphere of liberation rather than one of stifling claustrophobia, a brief respite of freedom between the cloisters and the marriage bed. Marianne learns from the housemaid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) that the nameless Italian was previously contracted to Héloïse’s sister, who took her own life by jumping from an island clifftop. During Marianne’s first encounter out walking with Héloïse, Héloïse breaks into a sudden sprint towards the cliff-edge, stopping short just before she runs out of land. ‘I’ve dreamt of that for years,’ are her first words to Marianne. ‘Dying?’ Marianne asks. ‘Running,’ says Héloïse.
Marianne and Héloïse’s romance flourishes with the same untethered abandon, Sciamma eschewing the worn tropes of taboo, secrecy, and shame common to representations of lesbian relationships on screen. The chemistry between Haenel and Merlant transcends every pyrotechnic platitude – slow-burning, smouldering, sizzling – that might be used to describe it. The film invites the viewer not to be an omniscient voyeur observing Marianne and Héloïse from an audience perspective, but rather to see each woman through the eyes of the other, the passion between them unmuted – rather, intensified – by the elegance and subtlety with which it is conveyed.
The fact that Héloïse’s husband-to-be is never named or seen sets the reality of her marriage at a safe (if temporary) distance, giving Héloïse and Marianne the freedom to acknowledge and explore their love during their time together. Men in the film largely exist off-screen, if they are referenced at all; when Sophie shares with Marianne, for instance, that she has not had a period in several months, the only question Marianne has for her is ‘Do you want a child?’ She makes no inquiries as to the man who made Sophie pregnant, the focus instead remaining on Sophie’s agency and intentions, Marianne and Héloïse’s support, and the developing comradeship between the three of them.
Critical of Marianne’s first portrait attempt when it is revealed, Héloïse agrees to pose for her. The painting becomes a collaborative endeavour infused with the evolving romantic and sexual intimacy between the two women; Marianne casts off the ‘rules, conventions, ideas’ that restricted her first effort and left it lacking in truth and presence. Marianne’s art thrives with Héloïse’s encouragement, notably in her candlelit rendering of Sophie’s abortion, Sophie and Héloïse both obliging models recreating the tableau. In the final scenes of the film we see Marianne at an art gallery, a gentleman commenting on an unusual depiction of Orpheus in one of the paintings. Marianne reveals herself to be the artist, having submitted the painting under her father’s name. Set to take over her father’s business, Marianne has not the same pressure to marry as Héloïse. As an artist, however, she is bound by convention; something from which, in her isolation with Héloïse, she is briefly liberated.
To use flamboyant superlatives to describe Portrait of a Lady on Fire seems almost unbefitting given how beautifully and quietly understated it is. Despite the minimalism of the locations, the costumes, the incidental music and script, the film pulses with a richness and lustre that period dramas with more opulent aesthetic and garrulous dialogue can often fail to achieve. Its final frames of Héloïse at a performance of ‘Summer’ from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (observed from a distance by Marianne for the last time some years later) perfectly encompass the ardour, the heartache, the breathless longing and sheer joy that the film evokes. A lacework of exquisitely subtle yet blistering passion, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is less an ephemeral flame and more a firebrand on the soul, an impression left long after the credits have rolled.