Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which swept the Cannes Film Festival last spring and was directed by Céline Sciamma, has come to the Charles Theatre for a limited release in Baltimore. If you don’t want to spend the price of a meal on a movie you could easily procure online, you can do what I did a month ago: download and watch it on Kanopy. However, there’s something to be said for watching a movie on the silver screen that is defined by intricate, cinematic tableaus, on long, emotionally-laden visuals dependent on color and furtive glances.
The film itself is like a drawn out Romantic painting, steeped in symbolism and restraint. Set before the French Revolution, it follows a young female portrait artist, Marianne (played by Noémie Merlant), who is hired by a wealthy, isolated widow on the coast of a lonely isle to paint her youngest daughter.
She arrives in a tipping rowboat, canvases already spilling out, impossible to contain. The painting Marianne is hired to complete is a marriage portrait, one that will be sent to a wealthy man that the daughter, Héloïse (Adéle Haenel), is to wed. The catch: the image must be painted in secret. Previously, Héloïse has refused to sit for any artist, and so Marianne must pose as a walking companion for the introverted and removed young woman.
As the two women begin to approach an understated friendship, Héloïse’s mother vacates the property. As the two interact only with each other and a quiet young servant girl, the empty house becomes the backdrop for an intricately balanced love story that teeters on the edge of collapse throughout its unfolding, always aware of its inevitable ending. It is entirely believable and utterly devastating because, as an audience member, I felt very aware of how this same impossibility has played out for gay women for thousands of years, in thousands of iterations.
While questions of lesbianism or sexuality in general are never addressed, the movie handled the topic with grace. The two women are at once allowed to inhabit the trope of star-crossed lovers while not falling into a traditional masculine-feminine dichotomy or being over-sexualized by the director (as is often the unfortunate fate for many LGBTQ films starring women).
Portrait of a Lady on Fire felt like a classic story, one that could have been written by the Brontës and remade over and over by the Hollywood film machine, while still acknowledging the specific intimacy and distinction of romantic relationships between women. Emotions are at once avoided and also so tangibly present that it feels fitting when the movie turns surreal — the minds of the characters are physically present in the film and artistic liberties that almost break the narrative arc are welcome, though somewhat disjointed.
At the same time, the film is an exploration of womanhood through art. There are hardly any men in the film — after Marianne is dropped off on the island by a boat full of them, there isn’t another man until the end, when an attendant from Héloïse’s future husband shows up. Their presence is so rare that a masculine face is startling to the viewer.
In the time between these two events, the women of the house explore a world that is at once their own and also entirely dependent on patriarchal influences that are invisible but still entirely present.
Questions of desire, autonomy, sexuality, abortion, female solidarity and isolation are all raised, not through discussion, but because they are canonized in Marianne’s art and in the heavily orchestrated tableau of the house. As the characters become more aware of their limited autonomy within a larger picture, Marianne begins incessantly painting the scenes around her, and the audience descends together with her into the tension between the languid summer days and the growing panicked awareness of an end, of the need to preserve.
There is so much else to discuss: the role of color, the symbolism of an endless sea that the characters can’t quite go into and the motif of disjointed music that builds throughout the film like a growing storm.
I really can’t recommend this film enough. It’s a specific story that is not concerned with the outside world. And when you’re watching the film, I’m sure you won’t be either.