By Afra Nariman
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Directed by: Céline Sciamma
Stars: Adéle Haenel, Noémie Merlant, Luána Barjrami, Valeria Golino
In 1770 France, a painter named Marianne (played by Noémie Merlant) is hired to paint the wedding portrait of a woman named Héloïse (played by Adéle Haenel) who is reluctant to marry, and consequently has refused to pose for her portrait. Marianne must observe her throughout the day and paint her in secret.
One of the most intriguing and impressive things about this film, is its ability to do ‘more with less.’ From a production standpoint, the first thing that comes to mind is the film’s use of music, or lack thereof. There are only a few instances of music, and each instance is initiated by the characters and/or are part of the film in that moment, not mere background music. Each instance is also powerfully placed. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is crafted so delicately and perfectly in every regard. It uses silence to build up scenes. We’ll hear the sound of footsteps, the fire cracking and simmering instead of music. Rather than having music intensify every scene, the film used silence to do so. There is something extremely real and captivating about letting natural sounds (and silence was relatively natural back in 1770) dictate the emotional power of a scene. Although music wasn’t played often, the film used music beautifully. As I said, the few instances in which there was music, each played a significant role in the scene. At one point, they also talk about music, and Marianne acknowledges that she cannot explain music and its wonder in words. She praises the orchestra, which Héloïse remembers in the emotionally vibrant final scene of the film.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire adheres to the idea of doing ‘more with less’ in other ways as well. Both Haenel and Merlant had incredible acting performances. One of the most noticeable and effective aspects of their acting that allows the film to be so powerful, yet simple at the same time, is the use of the two women’s facial expressions. In many instances, few words or none at all need to be spoken for us to completely understand the situation, the emotions and the perspectives of each character. The film feels effortlessly real in every way imaginable.
Portrait of a lady on Fire is a love story and a romance that takes place in 1770, but has hints of a new, fresh aura surrounding it. It’s also incredibly immersive. There is a very consistent element of mystery that enchants us, hooks us to the story and keeps us at the edge of our seat. It’s a patiently brewed romance, but its also exciting. Héloïse is dreading her impending marriage, but after a few days shared with Marianne, who breathes life back into her, her entire energy transforms; as you can see both in the film and the differences in liveliness between Marianne’s first portrait of her and her final one. They changed each other in their short time together. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a methodical love story that is carefully and delicately constructed, similar to the creation of a great painting, both of which we get to see develop over the course of the film. Similar to that sentiment; in an early moment in their romance, Héloïse says to Marianne:
There is a level of depth to the characters, as well as the film as whole. Each character has their own inner conflicts that they are dealing with. As the film goes on, they begin to understand each other on a deeper level.
When their time with each other forcefully comes to an end, all they are left with of each other is their memories. In the middle of the film, the two secret lovers and their friend Sophie are reading a fantasy book together out loud. The book ends with a lover impatiently turning around to get a glance at his love, knowing that if he does it will be his last time because of the pact he made with the gods who have allowed her to return to him. The women discuss why he did this and didn’t wait until they were clear and permitted to be together. It’s suggested that either she called for him to turn around, or he chose not as a lover, but as a poet. Just as poetically, Marianne’s last memory with Héloïse is as she is leaving the island. Héloïse calls out to her, “turn around!.” Marianne does, and that’s that.
The film ends with Marianne narrating and the screen showing us the two times that she has seen Héloïse since that last day on the island. The first was at an art gallery, though it was a painting of Héloïse that was on display, not herself. Beautifully detailed, the painting depicted Héloïse with her child, and with a book in her hand. Her finger in between the pages, held on page 28; the page that Marianne had drawn a portrait of herself on for Héloïse to always remember her by.
The second time that Marianne saw Héloïse, it wasn’t on a painting. It was actually her. They sat parallel one another on the 2nd floor balconies of an orchestral music hall. Héloïse had come to listen to the music of an orchestra, all these years after Marianne had told her how wonderful they are to listen to. As the orchestra plays commandingly and beautifully, the camera slowly zooms in on Héloïse’s face and stays there for minutes. As the music reaches its crescendo and the film its end, Héloïse falls into tears; the music obviously reminding her of her long lost love. This scene as a finale of the film brings their stories full circle and confirms their real love for one another, their effect on one another and the importance of their short time together.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is unlike any other romance. Sure, it has many overlapping themes that are present in most great romances, but it also does so many things uniquely. Taking place on a beautifully isolated island off the coast of France, there is a utopian element in the love story’s surroundings. The film’s use of mystery and silence, while giving standard romance and music it’s deserved praise and due exposure, is balanced brilliantly. This film represents the art of love and the love of art. Incredible filmmaking on the part of Céline Sciamma, who has created a deep and meaningful film.