Well into the runtime of Céline Sciamma’s transcendent Portrait of a Lady on Fire a scene arose that for this viewer had the same eeriness, intensity and power that I associate with the best horror films, a genre I am fond of. A community of women gathers around a campfire in the dark night, speaking things to one another they would not dare in the daylight. Of a sudden in this atmosphere ripe with great intensity, a small droning sound starts up, soon revealed as the melody of a song. Unbidden, the women sing together with an almost hypnotic power, some of the only music heard in this Spartan film. I don’t know if it was directorial intention, the way I’ve been conditioned to think about such things, or some combination of both, but for all the world it felt to me like a spell or incantation, this nocturnal gathering to be interpreted in the 18th century context of the film as some sort of witchcraft. Because that’s what happens when women gather together in their own space, with their own concerns, separated from male (and therefore societal) sensibilities. Men become uncomfortable with this notion, this seeming loss of control, and rumors and fear begin to fly.
That reaction was always flitting through my mind as I watched this extraordinary film. It is a film about desire and passion, yes, but it is just as acutely about self-determination, about space and about social control and mores, what happens when they can be suspended, and what happens when they cannot be broken. From my own perspective, and with my own background, I always had the sensation of being an interloper or an outsider when watching this film. It is about female space, and I was intruding on it. Men are only seen twice in the film, there is only one line of male dialogue and when it occurs it grates on the ears. Their presence is always felt, however, in the way the women yearn and desire for something else, while realizing they are bound within that web. All of this is encapsulated in a slowly unfolding, deliberately paced rhythm of a film that focuses mostly on the buildup and eventual release of emotion and feeling. This pace, as is more true for European films (this one happens to be French) will likely try the patience of many contemporary (American) audiences, but is full of rich rewards for those who wait.
Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) found some comfort in being a nun. It was not the religion as such, but it was a place for her to read, to listen to music, to not define herself based on the whims of a man. After the death of her older sister, her mother (Valeria Golino, known only as the Countess) tears her from that security to fill her sister’s place: marriage to a nobleman of Milan whom she has never met. As part of the marriage preparation, the Countess wants to present a portrait of her daughter to the fiancée. Héloïse refuses to sit, does not want her essence captured by a man for a man. Enter Marianne (Noémie Merlant).
Marianne is an oddity in this world, as rare as a unicorn. An unmarried woman with an independent income, fueled by her skill as a portrait painter. The Countess needs her to paint her daughter, but Héloïse will never sit for her, she can never know. All she can know is that Marianne has merely been hired as a companion. Marianne’s task is to observe, and then paint by memory. Every glance becomes intense. Every interaction filled with observation and recollection. By candlelight she’ll draw a sketch. An eye here, a hand there. Trying to capture a person’s soul with her eyes, with her mind, with her paint. Héloïse is like a caged bird. Marianne can only capture her anger. Or her sorrow.
This is a film that plays across the human face and across the rocky, craggy shoreline of the isolated island where the women live. There are only four characters to speak of (the young serving girl Sophie, as portrayed by Luàna Bajrami adds both touches of humor and touches of pathos with a subplot of her own involving another issue that highlights societal disparities of gender). There is no real soundtrack other than the crashing of the waves against the shore. The cinematography is appropriately painterly and understated, bringing out the muted colors of the cold beach and often highlighting the female face against stark black backgrounds, a chiaroscuro worthy of Caravaggio. The isolation of the women allows them to build trust and deepen their relationship, which by slow motions, fits and starts, by “inventing” or discovering something (according to a poetic snippet of the dialogue), turns into a physical, a loving, a sexual relationship between Héloïse and Marianne. This is portrayed with great passion and yearning. The raw physicality of it left an impression. It may sound strange to say, but after their first kiss we see an element not usually photographed. Suffice it to say I thought of the final scene of resurrection from Dreyer’s Ordet (1955). While they are isolated in their own little world, they settle almost into something of a contented domesticity, neither thinking nor caring about the conventions of the outside world, and yet that world will inevitably close in, resulting in the increasing drama as the film reaches its denouement.
To merely water down this extraordinary film as being a ‘lesbian love story’ does great discredit to the true effort involved. This is a film that builds a whole inner world. As an outsider to the world in many ways, it always felt a privilege to get a glimpse inside, and it is causing me to reflect very strongly on the notion of space, physical, mental, societal, who controls it and how. The unity of effort in this film is extraordinary. The direction perfectly balances the screenplay, the camerawork, the sound, the acting. Nothing is flashy, nothing is showy. It is all at the service of crafting this total, lived in world of feeling. Feeling that lingers long after the credits roll.
~Fr. Michael Carter