The love of look: ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

February 28, 2020

To love is to look. To gaze at the one you care about, learning their perspective, their point-of-view and the manner in which they move through the world. To find yourself pulled deeper. To learn the little movements and muscles, catching every stray and repeated gesture and motion. To be loved is to be seen, to have these tiny inflections—along with your whole self—not just appreciated, but embraced.

These details are the kindling for Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” a subtly incendiary period piece, the story of a love that burns bright, but cannot last. “When you’re embarrassed, you bite your lips. And when you’re annoyed, you don’t blink”—so says Marianne (Noemie Merlant) to Heloise (Adele Haenel). Set in late 18th century France, Marianne has come to an isolated island in Brittany to draft a portrait of Heloise, a young noblewoman engaged a Milanese suitor—against her will.

Not that Heloise has any interest being complicit in her own destruction on canvas, no desire to have her image massacred by a “flattering” eye so she will come across as a more “appealing” bride. Heloise rebels in the the only way she can: refusing to pose for the painters her mother hires. “I’ve dreamt of doing that for years,” she tells Marianne when they first speak, a breathless meet-cute by the edge of a cliff. “Dying?” Marianne asks. “Running,” Heloise replies. Sciamma stages no illusions around the suffocating conditions these women would have existed in, nor does she have any interest in letting their oppressors dominate the narrative. As a result, men aren’t in more than a dozen shots of this two-hour motion picture. 

The front half of “Portrait,” during which Marianne attempts to paint Heloise in secret—is defined by its restraint. The film aches to become something along the lines of the languorous “Call Me by Your Name,” and like Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 tale of a then-forbidden affair, “Portrait” is absolutely gorgeous, each frame as precisely crafted as one of Marianne’s paintings.

But to be stuck inside a painting—especially one you didn’t construct—is another form of captivity, and the luxury of a once-in-a-lifetime romance isn’t as accessible for Marianne and Heloise as it was for Oliver and Elio. When our heroines do connect, slowly (finally!) acknowledging and acting on the attraction they feel towards each other, every beat feels earned, every shared second a valuable, memorable moment. Like any passionate hook-up, it feels like “Portrait” takes too long to get started, until it’s over too soon. That’s not a knock: the longing is a feature, not a bug.

This is no gabfest—Sciamma’s characters speak when there’s something they really need to say. This is thanks both to the auteur’s knack for writing truly memorable dialogue and actresses Merlant and Haenel. The same restraint of “Portrait’s” pacing can be felt in the performances, as both women channel a mix of defensiveness and desire. Neither is afforded the luxury of a grandstanding screenplay through which they can verbally express where they’re at. 

Marianne is our protagonist, and Merlant does a good job communicating her fear, wanting and relative world-weariness. Simultaneously, so much of what Marianne does—and so much of what the film does—is stare at Heloise, trying to take in her larger-than-life presence. Haenel more than measures up to her character’s prominence, her rage and determination always visible just under the surface. And throughout, it’s always clear what these two see in each other. 

The exercise is all in vain. How can Marianne capture all of Heloise’s self on a few square feet of canvas? How can anyone—Sciamma included—fully capture two people who would’ve lived and died centuries before she was born? Eventually, Marianne will finish her painting, and whatever relationship has developed between artist and muse must inevitably come to a grinding halt. There is no alternative.

And yet, we look. I first glimpsed “Portrait” last September, and I’d been eagerly anticipating a rewatch in the time since. But on second viewing, this film broke me. It’s an eerie feeling to find yourself crying in a movie theater: whatever analytical distance you walked in with has been completely demolished. Suddenly, you’re confronted with your own sadness, as well as the unavoidable truth that the thing on the screen has dug its way deep under your skin. Worse still, you’re showing real emotion in public, something we’ve all been trained to avoid at all costs! 

Not many pieces of media get me here—but seeing the scene when Marianne and Heloise first kiss again, I couldn’t stop myself. This should be a rapturous moment of joy, an overdue, exciting embrace. Instead, it signaled doom: a heart can only be broken in the hands of another. Still, we keep looking. Movies like “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” show us why.

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