Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu), the latest film from Celine Sciamma (Girlhood, Tomboy) arrived at TIFF already carrying high expectations, having won the Best Screenplay and Queer Palm awards at the Cannes Film Festival. To say the film lived up to the expectations is something of an understatement. Sciamma’s film is a gorgeously filmed and deeply felt love story, with a lot to say about the role of the artist, the myth of the muse, and how women can only rely on each other in a patriarchal world.
The film opens with Marianne (Noemie Merlant, whose striking presence reminds one of Rachel Weisz) posing for her art students, offering advice to them on how to capture her presence on the page. She pauses, though, when she notices a painting that a student had picked out of the archives. Marianne had painted it a long time ago, and doesn’t want it out in the classroom. The painting and the movie share a title.
We flash back to some time prior, when Marianne is brought to an isolated island in Brittany where she has been commissioned to do a curious task. The daughter of the woman who owns the estate is set to be married to a man from Milan, and they need a wedding portrait painted. That in itself isn’t unusual, except Heloise, the daughter (Adele Haenel, in her third collaboration with Sciamma), is a temperamental sort who refuses to pose. To be fair, Heloise has ample reason to be temperamental – originally her sister was the one set for the arranged marriage before dying by apparent suicide. After that, Heolise’s mother recalled her from the convent she had joined so she, instead, could marry this man she had never met. Marianne is instead to serve as Heloise’s companion, accompanying her on her walks and then painting the portrait secretly in the evenings. The hope is that by spending time with her, Marianne will be able to notice and remember enough detail to complete a portrait.
Naturally, the two women become closer during their time together. Heloise is shown to be unpredictable from her first scene, when she takes off running towards the very same cliffs her sister was said to have thrown herself off. Is Heloise trying to join her sister in death? No, she simply like the feeling of running, something that she wasn’t able to do in the convent. At first, the two women appear to be opposites: Marianne the independent, modern woman and Heloise the demure type constrained by tradition. But as they spend time together (and also in the company of the servant Sophie, played by Luana Bajramai in a terrific supporting performance) we eventually understand that they have more in common than they don’t. Their friendship builds to the point that after Marianne completes the portrait she tells Heloise’s mother (Valeria Golino) that she wants Heloise to see it for herself so she known why Marianne had been brought there. After Marianne tells her the truth, Heloise seems less offended by the lie than by the artwork – and she’s not wrong. Marianne’s craft is fine, but working from memories and sketches done in secret during walks resulted in a cartoonish work that barely looks like Heloise at all. What’s more, Heloise tells Marianne that the portrait doesn’t tell her anything about the artist, either. It’s just… there. Deeply hurt, Marianne destroys the portrait and then tells Heloise’s mother that she’ll paint another one, and this time Heloise agrees to pose. What’s more, Heloise’s mother will be leaving the island for a while so Marianne, Heloise, and Sophie (as well as the other residents, almost all women from what we see) will have the place to themselves while the work is complete.
Now, with the young women being able to express themselves freely, the movie truly reveals itself about women and how in a society dominated by patriarchy and deprived of basic needs, they can only rely on each other. So many things we take for granted today were simply unavailable at the period when this movie is set, most notably music. Heloise tells Marianne that one of the reasons she joined the convent was because she wanted to be able to hear music all of the time, and nobody in her household appears to be able to play any instruments (to further underline this, the movie itself has no nondigetic score). At first, Marianne charms Heloise by playing a tune on the harpsichord and later there’s a remarkable sequence at a festival held on the island where a group of women start singing in an incredible harmony. You can feel the magical impact of music even more when you realize how easily one could be deprived of it.
In its second half, the movie also shows itself to be a deconstruction of sorts of the typical story of the artist and the muse. Marianne and Heloise grow to love each other, but Heloise is far from being a simple conduit for Marianne’s artistry. Much has been said of how the movie depicts the female gaze, and how one’s perception impacts the art. When the painting is being done indirectly, we only get an idea of what Martianne thinks of Heloise. When Heloise is able to pose, the improvement in the results is not just because Marianne has something to look at while she paints – it’s because Heloise is able to share her own ideas about herself and Marianne during the process, demonstrating that Heloise is every bit the equal of Marianne in intelligence and insight. Indeed, Heloise shows herself to be even stronger than Marianne at times, as when they have to help Sophie obtain an abortion. Marianne tries to look away when it is being performed, but Heloise looks at it straight on, and give Marianne the strength to look on as well.
There are so many other things I could write about this movie – the moments of hilarious dry humor, the passionate love scenes, how it demonstrates both the constraints of patriarchy and the small ways of protest against it – but really, nothing I write could compare to the experience of seeing the movie itself. This was a great first movie to see at TIFF.