Cannes 2019 review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)

Portrait of a Girl on Fire (a more accurate translation of the French title) opens with Marianne (Noémie Merlant) posing as a model for a class of young girls learning to sketch. As she sits, she instructs them in considerations of form, contour, and silhouette. “Take time to look at me; see how my arms are placed,” she exhorts. The process triggers a memory: Marianne gazes off into another painting she did long ago in the past, a wide landscape with the figure of a young woman against a dark and cloudy sky, with the hem of her dress ablaze.

Marianne arrives at the estate of a countess (Valeria Golino) with a mission: she learns that superficially, she will appear to be a companion for the woman’s daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) on her walks, when really she is there to study her features and movement, then privately paint a portrait to deliver to Héloïse’s future husband, following in the tradition of Marianne’s father having painted the portrait of the countess that was given to her own husband. The first time that Marianne lays eyes on Héloïse, she is draped in a cape and hood, facing away, and her head turns to Marianne, revealing a troubled, fiery and angry glare.

Marianne quickly completes a portrait of Héloïse in her own time: the first attempt is technically accomplished – beautiful – but something about the expression seems… off. It is not inaccurate, especially from what little Marianne has seen of Héloïse: the expression is cold and unpleasant, almost a grimace. It feels as though perhaps the problem is how this is rendered: maybe this is not what the final product should depict (even if for the practicality of how Héloïse might appear to a future husband)? Or, maybe this is not how she was meant to ultimately see or define Héloïse.

Marianne tells the countess that the painting is complete, but negotiates that she must show Héloïse before she shows the countess. “Is that me? Is that how you see me?” Héloïse remarks with disappointment. Impulsively (or with deliberation?), Marianne rubs the face off of the painting.

Unsurprisingly, this does not go over well with the countess. “It wasn’t good enough: I needed to start over,” Marianne explains to the irate countess, who suggests that she is incompetent. “She stays; I pose for her,” Héloïse interjects. With reservations, the countess agrees to let Marianne redo the portrait, on the condition that it be completed in five days, after her return from a brief trip. The two get to work right away, and Marianne teaches Héloïse how to pose, how to place her arms, how to tilt her head. The two observe each other, and absorb critical details as to how the other behaves: Marianne notes that Héloïse bites her lips when she is embarrassed, and when she is annoyed, she will not breathe; Héloïse turns this on her, telling Marianne, “You touch your forehead when you don’t know what to say. You raise your eyebrows when you lose control.” Marianne laments, “I can’t make you smile. And when I do, it vanishes. Anger always comes to the core.” Over the next five days, the two spend more time in each other’s presence, and particularly as Héloïse softens, they begin to know one another in a profound way. A high concentration of companionship bridges the distance between them, friendship invites flirtation, and flirtation transforms into obsession.

Céline Sciamma may have three other previous films as a director (Water Lilies, Tomboy, and Girlhood), but it is often easy to think of her as a writer, given her prolific output that also includes screenplays for André Techiné’s Being 17 and Claude Barras’s My Life as a Courgette, an assumption that is followed by the generalization that directors who prioritize their writing tend to forfeit visual creation. But, with Portrait of a Girl on Fire, both Sciamma’s visual and aural language and syntax have evolved considerably. Her film is both rich and lean: while delicately and meticulously textured, there is no excess fat to be found in this film; everything that is seen or heard is there for a reason. Her sparing use of music is limited exclusively to the diegesis, and moments that would soar in melodrama are earned without using the shortcut of music that appeals to the emotions. Visually, light caresses the faces and wind gently tousles or vigourously whisks the hair of her heroines. The elements are tangibly felt in a way that creates an immersive, somatic experience that had yet to be evidenced while watching Sciamma’s cinema. The film also has its share of symbols: at one crucial juncture, Héloïse and Marianne, who are both wearing veils over their mouths, walk along a beach as the wind ravages and waves crash into rocks, and they lower the veils in order to share a first, passionate kiss. That removal of their veils is as though they are deliberately subverting social restrictions, and the place where life could end is where life begins for them. Nevertheless, these observations are not flamboyantly mounted so as to draw attention to the message: these are the kind of impressions that brew after leaving the film.

Thematically, there is not a traditional power dynamic at large that would tend to emerge in one of these dramas: the device of using Marianne painting Héloise’s portrait shapes the generation of their relationship in a very unusual and interesting way. What could have been full-fledged voyeurism is instead observance that coaxes a communion between the artist and her subject, a process that allows two young women who come from different social strata to become intimate, and treat each other as equals, when one would expect the painter to have the power of how to define her muse. Every successive incarnation of the portrait reveals a new level of familiarity between the two: what Héloïse is willing to share with Marianne demands a say in how she will be rendered, and as Marianne falls deeper in love with Héloïse, the painting conveys more and more warmth, wisdom and insight that chronicles the stages of their relationship’s evolution.

Like all great romances, this is a relationship with an expiration date: here, one that must end with the last brush stroke, and once the paint has dried. This must be why Marianne requires many attempts to perfect her portraits: it is not really that none of these portraits had sufficient value; all along, she has been trying to stretch the limited time they have between them. Marianne realizes, “I would love to destroy the portrait, but it wouldn’t stop the inevitable.” But that does not mean that a short-lived encounter of passion cannot be one that lasts for a season, a reason, and a lifetime.