Director Céline Sciamma was a close second for Best Director at last year’s Indiana Film Journalists Association awards, and with good reason: Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a patient, intimate romance that captures the passion of its lead characters, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), while using their story to express something larger and, in some ways, more truthful. Truthful in the way that only art can convey.
It’s about women finding community among one another and what they have to do to maintain it within themselves when the confines of reality set in. It’s a movie about unsaid things, and a movie about the way in which art speaks that which can’t be spoken aloud.
Marianne is a painter brought to an isolated island to paint Héloïse, whose refusal to sit for her portrait has stumped previous artists. Héloïse was brought to the island by her mother (Valeria Golino), a countess who is marrying Héloïse off to a Milanese nobleman. The countess tells Marianne that she, too, once sat for a portrait that greeted her upon entering her husband’s new home — a portrait that defines who she is for the man to whom she now belongs, to the world in which she now lives. Héloïse previously lived in a convent, where she experienced equality of a sort — there was a library and she was able to be alone. Meanwhile, Héloïse’s sister has committed suicide — and the countess’s initiation of the arranged marriage is a direct response to stave off a similar fate for Héloïse. However, she has no interest in marrying a man she doesn’t know and, thus, will not have her portrait completed.
Thus Marianne is introduced as a daytime “walking partner” rather than an artist. She sets to her work in secret at night, from memory, as best she can. The two women grow close on the island. There, they are free of the expectations that guide their lives beyond its shores. Marianne’s career off the island is limited by her gender, defined by the stature of her father (also a portrait artist) despite her best efforts to the contrary. Héloïse, obviously, has the marriage situation.
Haenel is currently under fire in her industry for protesting director Roman Polanski’s win at the César Awards (France’s Academy Awards equivalent) in Paris. Polanski’s win is reflective of the ongoing struggles with power structures that minimize women in their fields, and in general. And yet women design communities for themselves, and always have, to express themselves in a world where their feelings and perspectives are often unwelcome. The power of those communities is, above all, what Lady on Fire yearns to capture. It’s not simply a love story between two women, and their inability to stay together is not the only tragedy as it reaches its denouement. The loss of their time on the island — ended by the literal appearance of a man in their kitchen toward the end of the movie — is a loss of freedom they’ll seldom experience again.
“I didn’t dream of you,” Héloïse says, as she and Marianne kiss, “I thought of you.”
Sciamma yearns to capture the world for these women that they will only remember in dreams, through memory, through the art they create together. The pivotal sequence finds Marianne, Héloïse and their maid, Sophie, visiting a bonfire where women sing and simply exist with one another. Not a single man is present. The three are there because Sophie is pregnant, but wants to abort the child. Marianne and Héloïse agree to help her with this. There is no question among them that it is the right thing for Sophie to do because she does not yet want a child. It is a decision uniquely faced by women.
As the song escalates in passion, Héloïse’s dress catches fire. The sequence is marked by a certain unreality. This is the scene Marianne captures in the titular painting — not a “realistic” portrait of her lover (as is requested by the man whom Héloïse is to marry), but a fleeting moment in which the two were free, and everything that came with that freedom. It is that stylistic dissonance that illustrates the world outside versus the world within them, a world that preserves their souls as they truly are.