Recurring throughout Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the image of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in a wedding dress, a mirage that haunts her lover Marianne (Noémie Merlant) during their fleeting time together. It’s a starkly fantastical image thanks to director Céline Sciamma’s and cinematographer Claire Mathon’s intentional heightening, but also, I imagine, one that hits harder for people who’ve been told that marrying those we love was out of reach.
For Héloïse and Marianne, this is a fantasy because they are two women in 18th century France, a relationship that, unlike now, was not sustainable. Why go back, then, when you could be telling stories of lovers who can be together? As they say in the film, it’s the poet’s choice. Always, at every turn, Sciamma makes the poet’s choice.
While Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a romance, one of the most potent we’ve seen in years, that’s hardly everything that’s going on. The image of Héloïse is a beautiful fantasy, yes, but one that’s drenched in anger and guilt. Marianne is there to paint Héloïse for her betrothed, and if he likes the portrait, the transactional marriage will go through. Marianne and Héloïse are complicit in their own separation, a fact that cannot be escaped even in fantasy. And so the image of Héloïse appears only when Marianne is moving away, and all she can do is stare until it fades. It’s the film in a nutshell, a brief glimpse of something deep and painful in its brevity, the impact of which will hopefully stretch out to the end of time.
Romance is as close to a universal experience as we have, and yet, like all of our stories, it has been whittled down to a standard narrative that is a shell of the real thing. Part of that is because of the narrow group of people who tell our stories. Part of that is because of constraints of medium. The former can be corrected, the latter can’t.
Film convention says that love is sex, lust, and a bit of understanding. It’s a power play, one where someone pushes and the other resists, giving the movie a narrative arc that leads to a comfortable and easily identifiable resolution.
Sciamma is having none of this. In Portrait the obstacles come from outside while the relationship itself is one of easy, agreed upon bliss. This is its own kind of fantasy; no two people can coexist for long without conflict, but the time constraint inherent to movies means you only tell a portion of a love story at a time. Sciamma chose the falling, the most standard part to be put on screen, which gives her the most firm conventions to push against.
Gone is the power play and upset is the balance of sex, lust, and understanding. The most romantic moments are ones where Marianne and Héloïse show their care for each other, their attention, their empathy. The first kiss doesn’t occur until the movie is over halfway over, and the sex and lust that is there (which is glorious) is without the leery view women, especially two women together, are often subject to.
Film is largely a reflection of a straight man’s view, as is most art, and to ignore that Portrait is working in direct opposition to this would be a great disservice. It’s embedded in the story at every level, from the easily identifiable (Marianne is a painter working within the opportunities given to women) to the innumerable details that will almost surely spawn reams of academic writing (Marianne’s work allows Sciamma to engage directly with gaze theory). The conflict in the film is entirely generated by men, by the standards they set for and the confines they keep women in. The joy comes from these women being free of it. The tragedy is that it cannot last.
The brilliance of Portrait, like the best of films, is the integration of these heady ideas into a slick piece of entertainment. The romance works, and you can take the film simply as that. The entry point for everything else is so obvious that it’s a marvel how fresh and vibrant the integration is; Sciamma puts the idea of seeing another person as an act of love within an almost entirely feminine world, a world that’s rarely captured so purely on screen. In doing so, she extends the love between Marianne and Héloïse to everything that femininity encompasses, wrapping what has been ignored and overlooked within its gentle, bittersweet gaze.
To watch Portrait is to face what we have lost through apathy, contentment, and laziness. Film convention has captured many wonderful parts of life, but it’s also left a lot untouched. As much as some of us may rant about what’s missing, few of us have figured out how to upend over a century of defining and reinforcing what cinema is. Sciamma did it. She gave us something different and rubbed our faces in a new, truly beautiful thing. Then she took it away, if only to remind us that we can have it, all the time, if we make room for it.