Men have been looking at women in films since the very beginnings of mainstream moviemaking, but only in recent decades have we seen the opposite. Of course, queer cinema has very much flipped the script on this notion, making the looks given between the same sexes into a veritable trope of its own. Now with the remarkable, masterful Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, the gaze not only illuminates the seen but the seer as well. With such a deceptively simple premise and very spare dialogue, this gorgeously shot film achieves unforgettable levels of complexity and feelings. Take that, queer tropes!
Writer/director Céline Sciamma (Tomboy), sets her film in late 18th century France. Marianne (Noémie Merlant ), a painter, receives a commission from La Comtesse (Rain Man’s Valeria Golino). She’s hired to create a portrait of La Comtesse’s daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) to entice an Italian suitor. Héloïse has recently found herself kicked out of a convent for mysterious reasons and now lives at home with her mother and their chambermaid Sophie (Luana Bajrami ). Emotionally frail, Héloïse has also lost a sister to an apparent suicide and refuses to sit for a painting. Marianne must study her subject on their daily walks and paint her secretly at night entirely from memory.
Without an incredible filmmaker, this storyline may appear routine, but Sciamma has the visual language skills to create great tension and beauty out of people gazing at each other. An early scene of our two leads walking along an oceanside cliff strikes gold every time Héloïse turns around to notice Marianne studying her. We feel an artist sizing up her subject as much as we feel the sexual attraction beginning to blossom. Sciamma also holds out a stunning surprise later on with regard to those looks. This reveal turns an already beautiful love story into something far more profound.
Sciamma also plays with gender identity quite a bit, with Marianne’s first pass at the portrait giving Héloïse a more traditionally masculine countenance. Despite her big, billowy skirts, Marianne also leans into more male traits such as her strong jawline and penchant for smoking pipes. Unshaved armpits may have been the norm at the time, but it also enhances Sciamma’s premise even more.
Throughout the film, we experience the artist’s painstaking process, basically tearing up each draft until she captures Héloïse’s essence. As their love grows, so do Marianne’s skills. In the second act, circumstances leave the pair alone with Sophie, who faces an extreme challenge of her own. Free from the strict rules of society, this trio laughs, drinks, plays games and in a great scene, attend an all-female ritual which leads to the image in the title. The title, however, applies to all three of our heroines, who, when given the chance to be themselves, burn with ferocity. It’s a distinctly feminist point of view with the added grace of humanism.
A lesser director might have pushed their ideas to the fore more than their characters, but Sciamma clearly understands that the personal is political. We grow to love these women because they refuse to succumb to Hallmark sentiments. Sciamma and her extremely talented cinematographer, Claire Mathon (Stranger By The Lake, another queer classic), favor austerity with occasional bursts of color to establish the film’s bleak mood. Much of the movie lives in the gorgeous candlelight and stark framing. Characters have been established so well, that when we see our main trio of women walking outside at dusk in exquisite silhouette, we know exactly who is who. Production Designer Thomas Grézaud understands the contained Manor should feel like a prison at times and an oasis at others. The craftsmanship and control of tone reminded me in parts of Michael Haneke’s White Ribbon and Jane Campion’s The Piano, with a little bit of Bergman’s Persona thrown in there for good measure. It’s a heady combination, but Sciamma feels ready to play with the other auteurs.
All of this comes together to support its stunning cast. While Golino and Bajrami contribute perfectly realized performances, Merlant and Hanel bring their story to aching life. Merlant has the rare ability to allow us to see clear through her icy exterior, and when she finally cracks a smile, we melt along with her. Hanel, who delivered strong work in BPM (Beats Per Minute), has the tough assignment of making us care for this upper class, somewhat charmless woman. One of the great pleasures of the film comes when Héloïse steps more and more into the world of “the help” to discover who she is and what she truly wants. Art, as always, is the great leveler. Of course, true equality for queer people did not exist in the 1700s, so it would feel disingenuous to assign a happy ending here. What we get instead leads to a final shot of such raw emotion and power, we can’t help but think of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire as a magnificent work of art.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire gets a 50 out of 50. From repression to elation to another feeling entirely, this quiet masterpiece runs the gamut of emotions one may have experienced as a queer person in 1760s France. Almost every frame of this film takes you on a journey of how queer women look at each other and draw inspiration from those gazes. I left it off my list of The Queer Review’s Top Ten LGBTQ+ Films of The Decade 2010-2019, because it technically opens in 2020 despite a limited release in 2019. I can’t think of a better way to start out a new decade, where this film will surely stay at the top of the next list.
By Glenn Gaylord
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire opens wide, appropriately enough on Valentines Day 2020.