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Courtesy of Neon and Liles Film

March 11, 2020

On the Groundbreaking ‘A Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

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No film has ever moved me as A Portrait of a Lady on Fire did. The film is a slowly unfolding love story set in 18th century France, featuring painter Marianne (Noéme Merlant) hired to paint her subject Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) secretly, solely by memory of observation. The film is intimate and jaw-droppingly beautiful. I turned to arts columnists Katie Sims ’20 and Ruby Que ’20 to discuss what made the film so unique, emotional and memorable; here are our thoughts.

Initial reactions?

Sims: I made the delicious but shortsighted decision to have Cinemapolis’s salt, sage and nooch popcorn for dinner and regretted it as soon as the film started. The film’s sound was arresting, and I disrupted it with my clumsy paws rustling the bag for a few savory kernels. Even — especially? — just following clacking footsteps around the room was lively and crisp. The shifts between the calm indoors and roaring winds were striking and revealing. I’m not usually one to notice sound, but A Portrait of a Lady on Fire is just as rich aurally as it is visually.

Plowe: When I remember my experience of the film, I first remember Katie’s popcorn crunching. More importantly, I also remember the silence in between crunches; the film emphasizes moments of silence because the soundscape — and lack of a soundtrack — helps the audience understand the mental landscapes which the characters of the film occupy. Héloïse tells Marianne that she has only heard church music, which informs the weight of the film’s quietness.

Que: One thing I kept thinking about during the film is how often they look at each other; not to initiate a conversation — not to pass judgement, not to demand attention — they look at each other simply because they want to, because they can. Director Céline Sciamma declared the film “a manifesto on the female gaze”, but it’s also about the lover’s gaze. How the world could be shaken by the simple acts of looking, appreciating, and ultimately understanding.

On the same note my favorite scene is perhaps when Marianne sets out to paint Héloïse’s portrait again after her first failed attempt. Héloïse poses as the subject, yet she is also painting Marianne’s image at the same time. “If you look at me, who do I look at?” She calls the painter closer to where she sits and asks. They see each other, with great attention and unmistakable tenderness. How else would you notice another person’s mannerisms as small as an eyebrow raised?

What struck you about this film as different from other cinema featuring LGBTQ stories?

Sims: Conflict with social norms and secrecy are easy and common plots for queer love stories. I was sure going in that A Portrait of a Lady on Fire would play this game, with outbursts about Héloïse’s impending marriage and the unfairness that their love must be secret and end, but those conflicts were underplayed. Instead, it focused in on the growth of their relationship. It was refreshing; the frustration of secret queer love is already well established in film, and there are other stories and aspects to tell. A Portrait of a Lady on Fire didn’t break the mold, but it bent and stretched it to make room to tell a better story about how Héloïse and Marianne get to know each other.

Que: Katie makes an excellent point about how queer stories often draws conflicts from the us vs. them narrative; the fight against the heteronormative society is definitely a profound one, but queer love, at its heart, is no different than any other kind of love. I loved how in Sciamma’s world the women are completely by themselves. The men that are mentioned are so distant and irrelevant, whether it be the suitor in Milan or the father whose name Marianne has to use to gain recognition. And when I said “the women” let’s not forget the young maid Sophie, whose addition is an absolute delight. When the hostess of the house leaves the island, the three young women establish this beautiful rapport among themselves. Marianne and Héloïse take care of Sophie as she goes through the unpleasant but necessary abortion, and the trio cook, dine and read together. I know this is supposed to be a love story, but how beautiful is a feminist utopia?

Plowe: The absence of sex scenes absolutely surprised me. A French lesbian story without gratuitous scissoring? Impossible! The director seems to mock the audience’s expectations for semi-pornographic content; an extreme closeup shows one of the lovers’ fingers rubbing some kind of hallucinogenic drug into the other’s armpit, a shot which is at first shocking and confusing. The shot catches us on our own desire to see sex. Instead, the sex the women share gets to belong to the characters and not the audience, and the story focuses on the intense emotional repurcussions of intimacy rather than the almost irrelevant physical mechanics of sex. I agree with Ruby’s interpretation of parts of the film as becoming “feminist utopia,” and it’s a utopia not meant for consumption (in the way that another feminist uptopia of Themyscira in Wonder Woman is, for example) but for the act of sharing an often hidden aspect of humanity.

Did any aspect of the film stick with you after watching it?

Sims: The way the film begins with the actual “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” painting is perfect. That painting and Marianne’s reaction to it tells you volumes about how Marianne sees Héloïse, more than many other scenes of Héloïse and Marianne together. It’s a joy to meet Héloïse in a painting that shows her fittingly, before we see Marianne struggle to coerce Héloïse’s image onto a canvas for a suitor.

Que: I couldn’t shake the imagery of Héloïse standing on the stairs in her white nightgown. She looks as delicate as a mere reflection in a pond that could disappear the moment it gets disrupted. In a previous scene where the three women read the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, Héloïse proposes the possibility that maybe Eurydice had told Orpheus to turn back to look at her. Marianne thinks differently, that Orpheus “doesn’t make the lover’s choice but the poet’s.” He had chosen the memory of her over a life with her.

The entire film is framed as a flashback — a romance — with a predetermined tragic ending where the lovers go their separate ways. Perhaps holding onto the memory of each other is the best we can do, the film seems to suggest.

Plowe: Early in the film, Marianne sets her two canvases wet with ocean water to dry by the fireplace. One canvas is set on either side of the hearth, and she sits naked in front of the fire and smokes a pipe of tobacco. Everything in this shot has a utility; she is naked because she needs to dry off, she smokes because she wants to relax after a difficult journey. Though the shot was beautifully composed, it had a sense of normalcy that one does not often see in period pieces. The shot simultaneously felt designed for an audience, and also not for us — the tableau was a casual moment in the life of Marianne. It was an unforgettable shot.

 

Emma Plowe is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She currently serves as Arts Editor on The Sun’s board. She can be reached at eplowe@cornellsun.com. Ruby Que is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at rque@cornellsun.com. Katie Sims is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at ksims@cornellsun.com.