Cinema, like other forms of art, is subjective. Some films can be soulless and others can connect on a personal level. This theory is what is at the heart of Girlhood director Céline Sciamma’s latest feature. Portrait of a Lady on Fire shows how the act of painting could go either way depending on the relationship between the painter and the subject.
At the end of the eighteenth century, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a young painter who arrives on an isolated island in Brittany. She is commissioned to paint a portrait of a young woman named Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who is to be married off to a Milanese nobleman, Marianne is informed that Héloïse has previously refused to pose for portraits as she does not want to be married. What starts off is a distant relationship with the painter who acts as the aristocrat’s hired companion. Marianne begins to paint Héloïse in secret, truths are revealed, leading to honesty, and the criticism her portrait that lacks personality. As hurtful as it sounds, it paves the way for Marianne and Héloïse to come closer.
After watching this, I was reminded of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, in that both films are about a forbidden romance between two people of the same gender, taking place in an isolated area. The setting is obviously a major difference and although it paints a positive if tragic spin on LGBTQ representation, the sexuality of the two leads isn’t the point. In terms of love, one has experienced it before, whilst the other has never so as she is preparing to be married. As there is the slow tension of burning passion – quite literally, during one sequence revealing the significance of the film’s title – each has the different perspective towards the idea of love, considering the current situation and the future they will never have together.
With the creation of Héloïse’s portrait at the center, functioning as the anchor for the film’s emotional turning points, Sciamma puts so much of the attention of what’s on the screen that she doesn’t rely on much dialogue. A lot of the drama between the two leads consist of them looking at each other. Initially, Marianne observes Héloïse for professional reasons, whilst Héloïse looks back, showing signs of resistance.
As the portrait goes through the improvements, the exchanges start to mean something different When dialogue is spoken, both see the tiny details that define each other’s characteristics. As much as the attention to detail is important in the story itself, the same can be said about Claire Mathon’s cinematography as nearly every image is a work of art from the sunny breeziness of Brittany, to the many interiors of the house where different kinds of lighting evoke various emotions.
The sense of beauty is a key theme in the film and it’s truly wonderful seeing these two young women discovering the beauty within each other. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are so incredible that the film frankly lives or dies, based on the chemistry between the two leads. That is not to negate the supporting performances that add more distinct female voices, from Valeria Golino as Héloïse’s sincere, but authoritative countess of a mother, to Luàna Bajrami as the maid Sophie, who has her own arc, whilst serving as a friendly bridge between the two leads.