Marianne must cross the rough seas when she is summoned by a countess (Valeria Golino) who would like to have a portrait of her daughter, Heloise. The portrait will be sent to Heloise’s fiancé, an Italian aristocrat, as a confirmation of their arranged marriage. Hoping to save their crumbling estate or move back to an exciting Milan where “music can be heard”, Heloise feels the pressure as one of two daughters by the countess. She inherits the task of marrying rich after the elder daughter commits suicide.
Marianne throwing herself into the water while crossing the sea to retrieve her blank canvases that were swept away by a wave under the indifferent gaze of sailors. The day after the night of her arrival in an almost empty mansion, she learns that she will have to hide her true purpose and identity. Heloise, who does not want to get married, refuses to sit for a portrait. The countess arranges for Marianne to serve as Heloise’s companion. She studies her face and body during their walks and translates them to canvas later in the day. She is assisted by the maid, Sophie (Luana Bajrami). The elaborate and fragile lie, however, breaks down when Heloise criticises the picture to incorrectly depict her likeness.
The film is a microcosm inhabited only by four people and it proves to be enough to expose all the rifts dividing humanity: the one that runs between aristocrats and the masses, the one that separates artists and art critics, the one that pits conformists against the rebels. The discussion of the rift between women and men is missing. But while male characters are physically absent, their presence is still felt from a distance: first through the promised marriage of to Heloise and also through Sophie’s efforts to end a pregnancy, and lastly by the prohibitions on Marianne to study the male anatomy for painting.
The young artist’s acclimatization to this world of women is harsh and austere. Celine Sciamma takes her time in unravelling the plot through powerful images of hieratic plans, dialogues which refuse the temptation of classical French in favor of a clear and modern vernacular. Language signals—with the exception of Valeria Golino’s embodiment of the established aristocratic order—the contained emotions agitating the characters.
In the year 1770, the French Revolution is still some years away and the role of women in society is fixed. This makes Marriane’s occupation as a portrait painter unusual but not implausible. Many accounts serve as evidence, that women have always painted but they are rarely exhibited or written about. One particular painter is Rosalba Carriera who reinvented the medium of oil pastel.
The outside walks on the coast become more tensioned because of the attention that Marianne accords Heloise. The two young women inevitably fall in love and start an affair during the short absence of the mother. Despite the intensity of the shared moments, it is clear to both that their connection cannot last.
It is a little surprising that a director known for contemporary subjects in her previous films would go 250 years into the past for her new film and take on a somewhat dusty genre of costume drama. The “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, however, is less a film about a bygone era than a film about the present. It reveals outdated traditions to comment about the role of women in the present.
Marianne appears independent and free at first, practicing an artistic profession that makes her marginalized enough not to be subject to the constraints of society. It becomes clear, however, that this supposed freedom only exists in a limited context: similar to the portrait of Héloïse, which was both a necessity and luxury in a time before photography. Portraiture is hardly ever free since it must depict a likeness that conforms to conventions of beauty. This shows in her first attempt where Marianne’s feminine gaze on her subject only becomes a mimicry of the masculine gaze (ample breasts, whiter complexion, plump face).
This power play in portraiture has been discussed extensively in cinema, precisely because in film history it was mostly men who stood behind the camera and filmed the women in front of the camera. Sciamma’s achievement is in her decidedly feminine look that reflects on feminimity rather than merely instrumentalizing it. The camera is not only guided by a woman but mostly, only women appear in front of the camera. Except for a short sequence at the beginning, men don’t even have a say. Inspite of this, there is a mystery to why “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” can not be called a dogmatic and ideological film.
Sciamma shows the subtle mechanisms of oppression without resorting to explicit lines or illustrative scenes. Instead, she uses the peculiar double-entendres, costume, and diagetic sound.
A two-hour film is roughly the equivalent of a portrait session. To make a portrait, the person to be portrayed has to sit still for hours and if needed, will be asked to repeat the pose for days. The film transfers this feeling to the the viewer through tight shots, and immersion in the process of painting: mixing paint, preparing the canvas, arranging the sitter, and setting up a studio.
The retreat from familiar surroundings underscores the taboo of the relationship in its historical context but it veers from the temptation of turning it into melodrama. It rarely uses music for emotional impact up until the ending sequence. Marianne is only able to play Vivaldi’s broken notes on a dusty piano when she asks Heloise to imagine an opera in Milan. In line with this austerity, the director minimizes cuts and holds the camera for minutes on the conversation of two main actresses. Their dialogue may seem opaque at times but you theres a hint of lyricism running through it.
It would be an injustice to label the film as a lesbian love story because it speaks louder about relationships between class and social backwardness than sexuality. The lovemaking is skipped in favor of post-coital trysts that discuss the nature of images, as if we are made to miss what the two protagonists also miss. One expects a steamy climax or a cathartic release at the end but what we are offered instead is a finger up the armpits in a drugged make out session and a restrained epilogue. Marianne meets her model once again across the balcony of an opera. Heloise cannot see Marian but she cries when at last, she hears the complete music of Vivaldi played by the orchestra.