Portrait of a Lady on Fire first look: Céline Sciamma conjures an oasis of female freedom

Sciamma’s rapturous costume romance finds a halcyon space without men for its artist and her subject to look and love their own way.

Isabel Stevens

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Adèle Haenel as Heloïse in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Adèle Haenel as Heloïse in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Watching Céline Sciamma’s haunting and downright revolutionary fourth feature makes me think about all the phoney period dramas I’ve sat through. Prestige heritage cinema is so often packaged for women, but rarely does it bother with the nitty gritty of their lives beyond who the characters will marry.

Men are banished to the background in this thoughtful and tender 18th-century set romance between a painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and her unwilling subject Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). They appear at the start, dropping Marianne off on a windswept beach by Heloise’s isolated Brittany family home, and they reappear at the end as the film and characters rejoin wider society. In between we witness a quivering love affair, and get a glimpse at what for women freedom circa 1770 might look like.

At first, there are small rebellions. Héloïse is refusing to have her wedding portrait painted. It will be sent ahead to her husband, who she has never met, and presumably after he has approved of her beauty they will marry and it will hang on the wall of his Milanese home as a constant reminder to Héloïse of her status as a possession. Marianne must pose as her walking companion, studying her furtively in order to paint her alone at night.

Haenel as Heloïse

Haenel as Heloïse

Sciamma dodges any hint of melodrama, opting to treat emotions delicately and faithfully for a time that suppressed them into glances and gestures rather than pouring them out into words. Nor does she make Héloïse’s countess mother (Valeria Golino) into a tyrant; she is just a dutiful matriarch wanting what society decrees is the best thing for her daughter. (Of the count we hear no word.)

For Héloïse, her impending, unknowable marriage amounts to self-annihilation, but that understanding is communicated softly, as when she talks about the freedom to read and listen to music that she found in a convent before her recent release. When Héloïse recounts how her sister in a letter seemed to apologise for passing her fate on – she was betrothed to the same man and was found at the bottom of a cliff – suicide hangs in the air. Throughout, the film often looks out longingly to the wild, open expanse of the sea and its crashing waves, a stark aural and visual comparison with the shadowy, quiet domestic spaces women must stay put in.

Luàna Barjami as Sophie and Noémie Merlant as Marianne

Luàna Barjami as Sophie and Noémie Merlant as Marianne

In a more traditional tale, Marianne, as a non-aristocratic painter, could so easily have been a Jane Eyre-style symbol of powerlessness, but right from the start, as she jumps off the boat to rescue her floating canvases, Sciamma makes her a more radical presence. Héloïse marvels at the fact that Marianne doesn’t have to marry, and gradually starts to trust her, even allowing her to paint her portrait. Sciamma sensitively takes her time before the swell of passion. After the countess departs on a week-long trip, increasingly roving and candid conversations give way to tentative flirtations, as when Marianne sensually arranges Héloïse’s position for the portrait. Later, the emphasis is on post-coital tenderness rather than the sex itself.

The women’s sense of relief and joy in their isolation is also communicated by Claire Mathon’s camerawork. Until this point, other than the odd moment of candlelit Rembrantian chiaroscuro, the film has been muted in its compositions and colour palette, but gradually these too become more expressive. As the women, including servant girl Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), venture out at night to a gathering of local women, the festivities are majestically rendered, with figures looming out of the inky dunes, bathed in a fire-lit glow. A chorus of female voices suddenly erupts in song and the haunting folk aria feels all the more sublime given the sparsity of the film’s soundtrack so far, mostly footsteps and fire crackles.

Merlant and Haenel

Merlant and Haenel

If women’s limited horizons are the negative space of the film, the fascinating details of how they live are front and centre. When Marianne gets her period, it’s just woven into the fabric of the film. Similarly there are no hysterics over Sophie’s unwanted pregnancy; there’s barely even discussion of it. Instead the trio matter of factly experiment with what must be traditions passed down from generation to generation in whispers: Sophie runs to exhaustion on the beach, then drinks a potion and dangles from a beam, before finally visiting a woman in their village who, in a memorable shot, carries out an abortion while her own children lie next to her patient. The women do also have fun, devouring Greek mythology, and in one delicious scene even get high.

With not just a woman but her own lover painting Héloïse’s portrait, it acquires a subversive and secret charge. And it upsets the traditional male gaze, much as the film knowingly highlights the perennial problem that women as subjects of art aren’t taken as seriously. Marianne discloses how women artists are not allowed to paint men in order to “prevent us from making great art”.

Haenel and Merlant

Haenel and Merlant

Interestingly her painting is presented as a collaboration. Héloïse critiques it and shows how the gaze works both ways, coyly listing the characteristic mannerisms and gestures she has judiciously studied in her lover. The politics of representation and the power of the gaze are constant themes of the film but they’re always wrapped into the love story rather than a lecture.

“Take time to look at me,” says Marianne, modelling for her class of female students at the start of the film. It equally works as a provocation to us. Take time to look at these characters properly, Sciamma is saying. By the end of the film her order takes on extra resonance as the short-lived love affair inevitably ends, and memories and paintings are all that are left. After such a restrained study of love and the power of looking comes the devastating ambush of the film’s ending – but, entirely appropriately, it’s one that simultaneously revels in the rhapsody of art.

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