Currently showing at the Princeton Garden Theatre, Céline Sciamma’s latest film “Portrait de la jeune fille en feu” (translated as “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) explores the dialectics of artist/subject, love/beloved, and viewer/viewed, presenting them as fluid and reciprocal. In the act of viewing, the film posits, oneself is viewed.
Set in 18th-century Brittany, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” follows a young artist (Marianne, played by Noémie Merlant) commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of a mysterious young noblewoman (Héloïse, played by Adèle Haenel). Héloïse has refused to sit for the portrait in defiance of her impending marriage with a Milanese gentleman (engaged to Héloïse’s sister before she committed suicide), so Marianne must attempt to secretly paint Héloïse by memory at night. The relationship between Marianne and Héloïse gradually deepens into romance, burning slowly but intensely throughout the movie until its painful ending.
The film builds the tension between Héloïse and Marianne by directing our gaze to the parts of Héloïse which Marianne aims to capture in her painting (her ear, her hands, etc), and limiting when we can see Héloïse’s face. Like Marianne, at the beginning of the film the audience is not allowed to look at Héloïse directly. When Marianne first meets Héloïse and accompanies her on a walk, Héloïse walks in front of Marianne so we — seeing through Marianne’s eyes — cannot see Héloïse’s face. She breaks into a run and, for a moment, it looks like she will leap off the cliff into the sea (as we have been told her sister did to avoid her impending marriage). When Héloïse stops before the edge, she says she wanted to do that for a long time.
“Mourir?” Marianne asks. Die?
Héloïse turns around to face the camera, and we see her face for the first time. “Courir,” she corrects. Run.
Héloïse’s sister decided the only way she could run from her fate was to die. As the film progresses, the restraints on women in this world become more binding. Sciamma uses her film to explore the limitations imposed upon women and the rich relationships women develop with one another. The only men in the film appear briefly at its beginning and end and are given few lines.
One of the first scenes of the film shows Marianne arriving from her boat trip to Brittany, soaked through from jumping in the water to save her art supplies. We watch her climbing up a rocky hill, carrying bulky bundles on her back and struggling under the weight of her skirt saturated with water. Women’s fashion throughout the film is shown in all its truth, both beautiful and physically restrictive.
Comparing the lives of Héloïse and Marianne reveals how the characters are each trapped by the society they live in. Héloïse, though a noblewoman, appears less free than Marianne, who works for a living and plans not to marry. It would not be acceptable for Héloïse to work, and she was not educated in practical skills; her only glimpse of freedom comes from her time spent in a convent, encouraged to read, write, and listen to music without the presence of men. Marianne, though able to take over her father’s business as a painter and live a more independent lifestyle, is also limited by her status as a woman: she is not allowed to paint nude men.
When Héloïse asks if this rule is enforced out of modesty, Marianne responds that it is to prevent her from painting the “great subjects” and becoming a true genius. Marianne admits with a smile that this only means they must be painted secretly, at night. The most obvious (and, as the film progresses, most painful) limitation on Héloïse and Marianne as women is, of course, their inability to express their desire for each other; that, too, must be secretly explored only at night and in hiding.
In addition to following the deep romance between Marianne and Héloïse, the film introduces us to one of Héloïse’s servants, Sophie. When Sophie becomes pregnant, the three women attempt to induce a miscarriage. Sophie runs until she is exhausted, drinks tea made from special herbs, hangs from the ceiling until she passes out, and visits a healer who inserts a paste-like substance into her vagina. Watching these repeated and sometimes violent actions Sophie insists on enduring — efforts which are ultimately ineffective — makes wrenchingly clear the lengths Sophie would go to have some control over her own body and future.
The act of viewing in the film also becomes a means for the women to assert their autonomy. In the movie, women look at other women and consider them worthy of study for who they are. In other words, the women in the film are visible to each other even as they are not to the society in which they live. When Héloïse agrees to be painted by Marianne, their sessions become an exercise in reciprocal viewership as Héloïse challenges Marianne’s conception that it is the artist who studies the subject and not the other way around.
The importance of the gaze is underscored through the film’s conversation with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. After reading the myth, Héloïse, Marianne, and Sophie initially cannot fully understand why Orpheus would turn around when he knew it would cost him Eurydice. Marianne suggests it is a purposeful choice between acting as a lover or as a poet; Orpheus, the poet, chooses the memory of his love rather than his lover. After some consideration, Héloïse suggests that it was Eurydice’s decision, that she called out to Orpheus and asked him to turn around. Marianne and Héloïse reenact the Orpheus and Eurydice myth in their own context, resulting in a breathtaking and moving moment of loss.
The winner of several major awards including best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” carefully renders a deep and poignant story about womanhood, queer femininity, art, and viewership. As the camera controls where we look in the film — at Marianne looking at Héloïse, at the back of Héloïse’s head, at Sophie from above as she lies on a bed — we, too, find ourselves being viewed even as we hope that the characters onscreen will turn toward us.