An Overdue Piece about the Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
As much as I love movies and the feeling I get whenever I’m watching good ones to great ones, I always end up only thinking about the key elements of the films that made me feel over coffee and a stick of cigarette. However, as I am trying to streamline my thoughts in one platform, I thought I’d start with the film that swept off my top 5 films just like that and went straight to the top. Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
I watched this film but I didn’t expect it to hurt that much. Later on, I’d found out that Director Celine Schiamma did intend to hurt viewers by a single scene that defined the movie. Yes, the page 28.
Thirty minutes before I watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire I was already feeling sad about my own life. Two-and-a-half hours later, I was completely wrecked, and I stayed that way for almost two weeks.
Let us talk about the simple plot
The film begins with silence. When the opening credits flash on the screen, there is no orchestral score, no Mozart requiem to tell us that this movie takes place in the late 18th century. In fact, the movie has no score at all — just a few moments of diegetic music, all the more beautiful for their ephemerality: a brief harpsichord tune, a haunting chant around a bonfire, a final sweeping orchestra. Otherwise, Schiamma’s minimalist style forces attention on every word and expression of her virtually all-female cast. (If there was a male character with lines, I don’t remember his face or anything he said.)
The film follows Marianne, a painter, as she arrives by boat on a remote, cliff-bounded island off the coast of Brittany. There, she meets the widowed countess who commissioned her as her father’s reputation precedes. The countess explains Marianne’s job: She must paint a portrait of her daughter, Héloïse, but in secret. Héloïse’s fiancé, a wealthy Milanese man, has requested a portrait before he finalizes their marriage, but Héloïse refuses to sit for one. (Gee, I wonder why.)
So the mother comes up with a plan: Hire Marianne under the guise of her being Héloise’s companion, have her join Héloise on walks along the same cliffs from which her sister died — or, perhaps, from which she leapt. In her downtime, Marianne would then construct the portrait from memory.
The silence was deafening but it heaves and tugs at your gut
I remember every scene during the first parts being so silent, all I could hear was the wind and the waves. However, the cuts and transitions were so sharp and focused, I could very well feel how Marianne panicked when Héloïse ran towards the cliff after learning that her sister jumped and took her own life to avoid the unwanted fate of marriage.
On the pair’s first walk together, Marianne steals careful glances at Héloïse’s face, presumably in preparation for her portrait. But gradually, with each day’s walk, the glances gain a new quality — they last longer, they carry more weight, they radiate an unspoken tension (tension that made me choke on my coffee several times). Eventually, it’s unclear who is truly the observer and who is the subject. As Héloïse said during the second half of the movie “When you’re observing me, who do you think I’m observing?” (Well, shet.)
The dynamic between our two characters
Thus does the relationship between the two women begin in deceit, even betrayal. That’s not where it ends, though. “Portrait” is a tale of passionate love that grows out of discovery — first Héloïse’s discovery of Marianne’s true purpose, then the women’s gradual discovery of each other. The subject does agree to pose. The artist does get to paint openly. Héloïse and Marianne observe each other with equal intensity, learn the contours of each other’s features and bodies.
The story of an aristocratic woman restricted to married life is not new. How cruel was the world before, or has it even changed today? The only choice was either business or let a supposed man take care of you. Those were the only options women had back in the day. And this theme already set the expectation that you shouldn’t hope, you aren’t allowed to hope.
You know that sooner or later, they would have to let go. It’s just on the matter of how.
This is why Portrait worked so well. It is elevated beyond the cliché in its examination of the artistic and romantic gaze — where they converge in fleeting moments and how they linger in the memory. That this gaze is shared between two women makes it all the more revolutionary. The tradition of the masculine observer, of an unequal power dynamic in art and love, is flipped on its head.
If you were paying close attention, you would notice that Héloïse and Marianne were caught in the midst of a push and pull. Marianne taking pride in her artwork but is breaking as she completes it, and Héloïse going back and forth in her head if she should act on her feelings or not. I remember cursing and saying, I would be disappointed if the climax isn’t as satisfying as we’ve got.
I was itching for an end to this stalemate of looks and secret glances to each other, which reaches its climax across a raging bonfire. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, a group of bonnet-clad women sing a polyrhythmic Latin chant. Their voices crescendo as, from opposite sides of the fire, Marianne and Héloïse study each other. When the bottom of Héloïse’s dress catches fire, she looks down, then back at Marianne — unfazed. After a few moments, two women rush into the frame to tackle Héloïse and stomp out the flame, and the scene ends and cuts to their alone time by the beach.
Personally, I was waiting for their first kiss. Of course, we’d all know that they would. I was just wanting to see how. Now here’s the part where I found so perfect: that moment when they both removed the cloth covering their mouth, they did it in perfect sync. They both wanted to kiss each other, that’s what it means. Consent in a perfect and artful form.
The powerful screenplay
As an aspiring screenwriter, this is the most important aspect of a film for me next to soundtracks and scoring. Words have the power to hurt you and movie dialogues are the best examples of that.
The dialogue that blew my mind: In solitude, I felt the liberty you spoke of. But I also felt your absence.
The scene that made me scream:
Marianne: I thought you had been scared off.
Héloïse: You were right. I am scared. Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something? I know the gestures. I imagined it all, waiting for you.
Marianne: You dreamt of me?
Héloïse: No. I thought of you.
The scene that broke my heart:
Héloïse: How do we know when it’s (the portrait) finished?
Marianne: One way or another, we have to stop.
The scene that broke my heart more:
Héloïse: I feel something new.
Marianne: Don’t regret. Remember.
The world of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is not quite our own. Schiamma explores an unseen layer, ghostly and surreal; this imagery of witches and witchcraft is not exactly frightening, though. On this island, the women appear to share love through mutual support and companionship that undergirds and strengthens the film’s primary romance.
Vox recently published an article hailing the film as “the perfect Valentine’s Day movie.” A Google search for “Valentine’s Day movies” brings up results like “The Notebook” or “Pride and Prejudice.” If you’re looking for something similar — a gushy romance that dries your eyes and leaves you warm inside — “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is not quite it.
Instead, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” deals a deep emotional blow. But it’s a blow that celebrates love in all its forms — love unspoken, love lost and love remembered. In brief glances and lovelorn sobs, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” finds a passion that transcends time and burns brighter with each day.