Strike a Pose
by Courtney Duckworth
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Dir. Céline Sciamma, France, NEON
So intimate and intricate are faces that portraiture can skew toward possession. There is a moment in Jacques Rivette’s La Belle noiseuse (1991) when the wife of a well-known but quiescent artist warns a younger woman named Marianne not to let him paint her face. Jealousy is not her mood. Years before, the wife had posed for the husband, but he held back and set aside his brush, perhaps fearing that to capture his inamorata with such cruel clarity would sap the sightlessness crucial to love. Less loved and so more malleable, Marianne is stripped bare in scenes that render art-making a brute act of unmasking. We never see what he wrings from her; he immures the final work in a wall as if it’s too combustible for contact with the outer air. Art dealers are shown a dull decoy: a blue nude without a face.
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire finds a new angle on this story of artist and muse. Here, “Marianne” changes from the name of the muse in Rivette’s film to that of the artist; and though for Marianne to limn her lover is also to end their love, seeing each other plain entangles the two forever in a shared remembrance.
From the first frame, Sciamma—in collaboration with cinematographer Claire Mathon, who also shot another film on the NYFF main slate, Mati Diop’s Atlantics—aligns the camera with the canvas. Portrait opens with a frame-filling rectangle of white, punctured by a hand drawing across it. Unseen, Marianne instructs the students in her drawing class, as if directing the action onscreen: “First, my outline,” then “Not too fast.” Sciamma thus allies filmmaking with painting. In a 2014 interview with BOMB about her third feature, Girlhood, Sciamma said: “How do I make a show out of the face? I’m making films that are portraits, and how does the face get in and out of the frame?” Her Portrait stokes a simmering suspense by initially denying us the face of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the woman Marianne (Noémie Merlant) has been commissioned to paint. Near the beginning of the film, set some time in the prerevolutionary 1770s, Marianne disembarks on a craggy scrap of coastline in the French region of Brittany and ascends to a leaf-strewn chateau, where she is lodged in a reception room that is “never used.” A widowed countess (Valeria Golino) has commissioned her to paint a promissory portrait of her daughter, the reluctant bride to a Milanese blue blood she has never seen. Neither has Marianne seen Héloïse.
Wandering the barren manse, Marianne comes across the cast-off canvas of a prior, dismissed artist—a man—and, hoping to size up her subject, turns it around. Where the face should be it bears a smear, a twisted void, perched atop an emerald-green gown. Cut to the hem of the dress, but Héloïse is absent that, too, for Sophie, the sole maid (Luàna Bajrami), is simply bringing it to show Marianne. At last the portraitist espies her elusive subject shrouded in a floor-length cloak that renders her a voidish silhouette. They walk out into the pellucid light, Héloïse ahead, and her hood slips down; such a meager glimpse deepens our (and Marianne’s) desire to see more. Then she dashes to a cliff and, gasping, turns to the camera. Framed against the azure sea, her face is a sublime, welcome revelation.
Marianne is a voyeur in this moment. The previous painter failed because Héloïse “refused to pose,” her mother equivocates, with all the double meaning such a phrase implies. To stymy Héloïse’s suspicions, Marianne is posing as a paid companion, common in those days when women were discouraged from venturing out alone, and made more plausible by the dramatic death of Héloïse’s older sister, unnamed, who was crushed on the wave-lashed rocks while walking with the maid. (Sophie suspects suicide because the sister made no sound. She was also to be wed to the Italian gentleman, and just as reluctant.) And so Marianne must paint Héloïse in secret, after their walks, by candlelight, in a covert corner of her room bordered by a blanket. These juggled duties give Marianne triple cause for observing Héloïse: to guard her from harm, to press her into memory so she can conjure her intact while painting, and, perhaps, for the simple pleasure of looking. In the last vein, Portrait echoes Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, adapted from Sarah Waters’s lesbian picaresque novel The Fingersmith, then transposed to Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century. Both concern a woman hired on false pretenses: the handmaiden tricking her lady into marriage with a crude thief, posing as a nobleman, in a gambit for her ample inheritance; the portraitist cast as capturer and voyeur to a recalcitrant subject, also a bride-to-be.
With the madam away, the social stratification between Héloïse, Marianne, and Sophie dissolves into a tentative equality where roles and responsibilities are fluid. One shot has Héloïse chopping vegetables before the fire (typically the maid’s household duty) as Marianne pours wine and Sophie bows her head to an embroidery of flowers—embroidery being both the parlor-bound province of ornamental noblewomen (servants were more often concerned with mending buttons or bringing up and down hems) and a subtle suggestion that Sophie, like Marianne, is an artist, plying at a medium that, until recently, was construed as mere women’s work. Sophie is earlier folded into the couple’s camaraderie when she reveals she is bearing an unwanted child, and without hesitation or moral handwringing, Marianne and Héloïse come up with ways to help induce her miscarriage. One campfire meeting among local women, thrumming with the energy of togetherness untrammeled by the presence of men, is attended so Sophie can speak with a local midwife, but a spirited choral roundelay becomes one of the most charged scenes in the film, showing how alternative art forms and structures are able to thrive among women. Sciamma creates a kind of alternative history à la Sylvia Townsend Warner or Saidiya Hartman, in which women’s folkways are brought to the fore. When a weary boatman sits astride the kitchen bench in the film’s final third, his casual appearance operates almost like a jump scare, so used are we to a world of women.
Sciamma understands that to make viewers feel the thrill of community, we must understand its absence. In Girlhood, the hypnotic rites of the girl group at the film’s center deflate after it atomizes. Whatever its cocktail of coping mechanisms, the kinetic crew of women thwarting debasement, and sourcing in each other some small glimmer of confidence, gave the film its diamantine attractions. Sciamma has set up this equation multiple times. In her 2007 debut, Water Lilies, she captures the in-group allure of an all-girls sychronized swim team for a girl who is not a member. The friendship she forges with the charismatic captain (also Haenel, in her first collaboration with Sciamma) becomes the intense association around which she structures her daily life, fueled by an undergirding erotic yearning that finds full flourish in a scene where she does the deflowering a man would do, so her friend can be believed to be not-deflowered by a man. Men ping on the periphery of the pair like bothersome insects: the swim coach swanning in to violate his young star, or the club paramour stepping in between their briefly utopic dance. Portrait does not squander its screen time with palaver about men, shame, the ethics of abortion, or the wrongness of love between women. It does not even consider the potential of escape, because to do so would be to open the door a sliver and admit a whole host of strident speechifying on the limiting roles to which women were then consigned, and still are. Sciamma instead luxuriates in the easy, ecstatic intimacy between Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie, as it unfurls when the tangle of expectations and presumptions and familial ownership fall away like the shorn threads of the Gordian knot.
After their first kiss, Marianne is followed by a spectral, ghostly image of Héloïse behind her, clothed in a white gown. Later we discover this image is the last Marianne sees of her; Héloïse is, in fact, standing in her wedding gown and, referencing an earlier conversation about the fate of Orpheus and Eurydice, implores Marianne to turn around. Marianne does, but then shadows fall over Héloïse—the door shutting and cutting off the light, like a candle extinguished. That their first physical encounter triggers these pre-hauntings suggests that love conjures the fear of losing before the process of uncoupling (whether in life or death) has begun. Or, as contemporary bard Joanna Newsom has put it: “Love is not a symptom of time. Time is a symptom of love.”
Portrait does not feel burdened with historical detail or shackled to period fidelity; the film operates more like a luminous reimagining of what could have happened behind closed doors, when geographical loneliness lent the unexpected pleasure of freedom from automatic social patterning. The film is as spare and elegant and symbolic as a fairy tale, but with some of those stories’ thorny strangeness, too, like the Italian countess who asks Marianne to paint her “ugly” friend or a psychedelic poultice, shared by Marianne and Heloise, that is ingested via armpit. Sciamma plays with the conventions of gothic horror, filming Marianne wandering the strangely empty house with a candle and asking Sophie, the sole servant, the genre’s signature question: “Can I be curious?”
Haenel, in a canny Q&A with Film Comment, explained that she elaborated her performance from the idea of a woman fractured from the gaze, like a Picasso, seen always from varied angles and mercurial in each moment—so perceptive of so young an actress to recognize that she was embodying a memory. Slivers of her face, sideways glances, and mirrors splitting her body hint at the film’s structure of recall and remembrance. Portrait begins with a frame story, as Marianne poses plaintively in a women’s drawing class before glimpsing a canvas, until then immured in some dusty crate, brought out in inspired admiration by a wide-eyed student. It is this Portrait of a Lady on Fire of the title—its crepuscular landscape pierced only by a frenetic dab of orange flame—that triggers Marianne’s memory. But the subsequent elaboration of the affair keeps true to its status as remembrance, showing us only what Marianne could have seen—not Héloïse attending mass to hear scant organ music (if she even did), not where she fled after one of their quarrels, not her late sister or father or husband, or any of the life surrounding whose receding made way for their brief but enduring connection.
Portrait is a film about a portrait that contains many miniature portraits of its own, and the final moments are the most fissive. Héloïse has heard Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons through the imperfect medium of a harpsichord that Marianne plunked on through gauze; misremembering the composition, her lover made it more perfect and more singular. In voiceover, Marianne reveals she last saw Héloïse at a concert of Vivaldi, where her gaze was not returned. Marianne is returned to the voyeur, the outsider, and we are left with a tableau vivant, a moving portrait, of Héloïse’s heartbreaking reaction to the music, more lush now but also more meager because it’s without company. Speaking with Amy Taubin, Céline Sciamma said that, for this scene, she gave Haenel a list of emotions to pass through, but trusted her to determine their lengths and intricacies. So Sciamma, the painter, creates beautifully because she trusts beautifully. And Haenel does something interesting here amid her tears. Brief as a candle, she smiles—a sticky, incredulous, beatific movement. She shows that she has been limned but not pinned down—a woman alive, still capable of scintillating surprise. So Nina Simone sang in her rueful rendition of “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”: “Her picture is painted in my memory without a color of despair, and no matter where I go, she is always there.”