Portrait of a Lady on Fire: The Art of Painting Between the Lines
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a devastatingly beautiful film that weaves together themes of love, equality, and remembrance in a subtle yet powerful way. The movie -- set in the late 1700’s -- opens on Marianne (Noémie Merlant) posing for a class of aspiring artists. Marianne instructs her students to begin with the contours and outline of her portrait before carefully and closely observing the subject and fleshing out the details - like the way she rests her hands or the precise shape of her ears. Marianne’s instruction sets the stage for a fundamental question the film seeks to answer: can life be meaningful if we can only fill the space inside the lines that constrain us -- lines imposed by society, by class, by memory? Sciamma’s answer is a bittersweet “maybe.” Warning: this article contains discussions of plot elements in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Marianne is commissioned by the Countess (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) for a wealthy suitor from Milan whom Héloïse has never met. If he likes what he sees, they will marry. Héloïse has refused to pose in protest, so the Countess informs Marianne that she is to pretend to be Héloïse’s companion and to paint her likeness in secret. The contours that define Héloïse are made clear from the start. Héloïse is bound by societal expectations of a woman of her status; she is expected to marry the handpicked gentleman from Milan and to maintain her position as a well-bred lady, with no regard to her own desires or ambitions. Héloïse has no choice but to accept her fate or follow in her sister’s footsteps by throwing herself from the cliffs below the family château. Like Marianne, Sciamma spends the majority of the movie filling in the portrait of Héloïse. Our introduction to Héloïse is exhilarating and unexpected. She at first appears untouchable and cold, enveloped by a deep blue cape; but suddenly her hood falls, revealing a mess of half-tamed hair, and she takes off running towards the cliffs and the ocean, stopping at the edge to exclaim -- breathlessly -- that she has dreamt of that moment for years. As time passes, Sciamma reveals Héloïse’s humanity and morality, contrasting her nature with her social station. Héloïse revels in card games and philosophical debates with Marianne and Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), the housemaid as equals, remarking that “equality is a pleasant feeling.” Héloïse finds joy and consolation in music, though she has yet to experience the richness of an orchestra. The story is driven by Héloïse’s vivacious spirit and yearning to experience life while it is still hers to live. As the wedding portrait nears completion, the bond between Héloïse and Marianne grows stronger and bolder, every passing day bringing them closer to the acceptance of and surrender to the feelings that burn between them. Their love is magnificent and irresistible, in no small part because it is doomed from the start. Héloïse and Marianne know how their story will end, yet neither turns away from the feelings they are forbidden from having but cannot ignore. They let themselves be swept away by an overwhelming love that engulfs them for the limited time they have together. It is at the magical crescendo of the sexual tension between them that Héloïse is transformed into a lady on fire -- literally and figuratively. For the rest of the movie, Héloïse burns brightly and fiercely, fully conscious of her impending exile to a life she does not want and did not choose. But for a precious few days, she encourages Marianne to shine alongside her, and together they observe, experience, and process a series of raw and emotional moments. The love they share is as breathtaking as the scenery around them: simple, compassionate, and utterly liberating. The completion of her portrait sets in motion the events that will require Héloïse to capitulate to a new set of societal boundaries. Héloïse accepts the painting, and in doing so seals her fate, surrendering to the version of herself as depicted by Marianne. Though both Héloïse and her portrait are bound by society’s norms and rules, the details of each have been observed and embraced carefully and lovingly, preserving the woman Héloïse wants to be; a woman that will never again fully exist outside the boundaries of her marriage or the frame. As Héloïse predicts that Marianne’s memory of her will fade over time, and that this rigid portrait will replace her in Marianne’s mind, she is insistent that Marianne approve of the painting. The painting is the truest version of Héloïse that exists outside herself. Unlike the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, which features prominently in the film, there is no bargain with the devil to be made in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. As the lovers part, Héloïse makes one last request of Marianne: will she choose to remember, or will she live with regret? Marianne makes the poet’s choice. For the rest of her life, she will remember Héloïse in the height of her radiance: burning with compassion, spirited and sparkling, unburdened from any expectations or demands. It is an everlasting love.