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In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Love is a Work of Art

How Céline Sciamma’s new film envisions a relationship between equals

Courtesy of Neon

On a remote island in eighteenth-century France, a woman is about to be married off to a rich Milanese stranger. Her portrait must be painted to ensure she meets his requirements; he had agreed to wed her elder sister, but the sister has died, perhaps in an effort to avoid her fate, so now it falls to Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). She’s thus far staged a quiet rebellion by refusing to pose, exhausting one artist who tried to capture her, so now her mother (Valeria Golino) has resorted to hiring a woman, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), as a faux chaperone who will take her on walks each day and then paint her from memory, by stealth.

You can already tell that the two young women will fall in love. For the first 20 minutes of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu), no one sees Héloïse’s face, but when she turns at last, stopping to wait for Marianne at the cliff’s edge after a spell of running as hard as she can, she’s fleshy and ravishing and elated. Shot after shot evokes some French or Dutch Old Master, using rich, luminous colors and deft choreography. This setup seems to have all the ingredients of a lush period romance, and Céline Sciamma’s film feels so luxuriant and assured that you don’t notice right away how many of the expected elements are missing.

Music, for one. Moments of tension, longing, anxiety, or exuberance—all the rhythms and cadences of the story—are conveyed without a score of strings. The two pieces of music you do hear, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and an eerie electronic original work that layers chants and claps, both exist within the reality of the story. The audience is given over into the same state as the characters, in which music, rather than being an almost unnoticeable pressing of emotional buttons every few minutes, is rare, significant, and transporting—and accompanied by an intimate awareness of the bodies that are performing it.

That’s apt because the film is about art as much as love, and is enthralled by the slow, sustained efforts that both require in order to yield a feeling of transcendence. When Marianne is painting, there’s none of the usual illusion of seeing the completed work slide into view: Each sequence shows a particular period in the creation of a picture, whether the early brushstrokes or the last, counterintuitive touches of color. The emphasis is on the gradualness and physicality of the process, the difficulty of translating mood and expression into paint.

Falling in love is portrayed as a creative process in which the two women collaborate. In a nighttime scene at a bonfire, as they watch each other through heat-rippled air scattered with sparks, Héloïse looks down at the stray ember that’s caught the hem of her dress and, rather than stamp it out, raises her eyes to Marianne’s again. Each studies the other in detail—at one point, they list the physical mannerisms they’ve observed: This is what you do with your hands, your lips, when you’re nervous, when you’re hurt, or embarrassed—so that the muse also becomes an artist, and art a generous, expansive experiment rather than, say, an exercise in exploitation.

They develop a friendship with Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), the household maid, and all three try to help one another in the limited ways they can. The two central performances are naturally what make the artistic relationship as persuasive as it is. Haenel is especially riveting: Her face absorbs and reflects a shifting panoply of feeling and thought, and it’s hard not to see the film as in part a love letter, a tribute to her and to her working partnership with the director. She starred more than a decade ago in Sciamma’s debut, Water Lilies—a minimalist study of contemporary adolescence, like all her works prior to this—and the two were also lovers in the years before Portrait was made.

In the movie, the collaboration between the two lovers is inherently painful, because the better the portrait, the surer and sooner their separation. After a brief initial glimpse of Marianne’s life some years after the main action, the film’s chronology is straightforward, and yet the heightened beauty of the framing keeps reminding you that you’re also watching an intense memory, or its construction, as if you can see the affair running backward simultaneously. The effect isn’t only poignant. Love and art are both seen to bend time—those uncanny early moments of recognition, as if what will come has already taken place; the memories being consciously, ritually preserved, such that they can be called up much later, undegraded.

Central to the film is a reclamation of the Orpheus myth, a version of which the three young women read aloud together one night. Sophie registers distress at Orpheus’s fatal, selfish incompetence in looking back at Eurydice when he was told not to, and Marianne suggests he may have done it on purpose, preferring to lose the woman and savor, instead, the romance of his grief, making not “the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.” But it’s Héloïse who removes, for once, the fixation on Orpheus, his failings, and his loss. What if, she says to Marianne with an edge of defiance, it was Eurydice herself who chose art over staying together, who rather than leave the underworld with Orpheus, stopped and called out “Turn around,” preferring to remain down there and be preserved in poetry. A kind of freedom and a kind of permanence, rather than, as eighteenth-century marriage looks to be, an unwilling exchange of one for the other. (This scene and the thread it unspools are affecting, although Sciamma emphasizes the Orpheus myth a little too heavily, creating false notes—such as Marianne seeing Héloïse standing in a doorway when she isn’t really there.)

Since this is a romance, nearly nothing inconsequential is said. Every line of dialogue carries thematic weight and yet, pared to its essentials, can be spoken naturally by someone living in that century or this one. “You think it’s the same, being free is being alone?” Héloïse asks, half sincere and half teasing, when Marianne tells her she can take the next day’s walk by herself. “Do all lovers feel that they’re inventing something?” she asks her before they sleep together for the first time. “You’ve made me laugh,” the mother tells Marianne, after chuckling at her own joke in conversation. “It takes two to be funny.” Though visually stunning, the film doesn’t make the past exotic. The timeless parts of sensory experience come to the fore, as when Sophie gives Marianne cherrystones heated by the fire for her menstrual cramps. The emotional intensity reads as internal to the characters, that of a bildungsroman rather than the sensational projections of a bodice ripper.

The movie’s most striking deviation from more traditional period romances is that here power and hierarchy, while they frame the story and must be navigated, are not eroticized. Marianne, able to paint and avoid marriage, has freedoms and problems Héloïse does not, but in the private sphere they create together, they’re able to meet as equals—what limits their choices doesn’t invade everything they feel and do. The thrills of beauty, of sexual desire, of the relationship between artist and muse, aren’t sparked by what’s forbidden or who is in control, but are presented as continually being made up and reworked. Sciamma finds excitement in a love that refuses or can’t afford to be possessive, that will not be translated into social life, and that nonetheless can be permanent rather than fleeting, because of the impression it leaves and the ideas it might produce. “You dreamed of me?” Marianne asks Héloïse. “No,” she corrects her, “I thought of you.”

There’s an implied bittersweetness not only in the impossibility of the love affair but in the figure of Marianne—a character inspired by a real, though small, number of women painters of that era who showed their work but were mostly obscured or forgotten. The camera lingers on the two women, aestheticizes them, yet doesn’t reduce or objectify them—and this magic trick is performed as though it’s easy, as though many conventions that have long been naturalized can drop away without even needing to be subverted, as though you can just snip the misogyny out of classical painting, eroticism, romance, out of so many areas of high culture, and leave their energy and beauty uncontaminated.

There’s an early moment when Marianne, at the request of Héloïse’s mother, is trying to tell Héloïse that marriage and Milan may not be so bad, that in some ways her world will expand. She’ll be in a place where she can discover new artworks, go and hear an orchestra. Héloïse has no trouble seeing through this gambit, observing, “You’re saying that, now and then, I’ll be consoled.” Marianne registers sympathy for her, and yet, later in the film, and even afterward, you might remember that line, and understand again that what was being promised is not nothing—it’s worth a great deal.