Directed by Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an everlasting and moving piece of art. Here’s my take on the latest addition to my all time favourites list.
Set in the 18th century France, It tells the story of a painter Marianne and the story behind one of her creations, Portriat of a Lady on Fire. Marrianne is presently teaching an art class in France and one of her students ask her about this particular painting. The story takes us back a several years when Marianne was commissioned to draw the portrait of Heloise, a young woman soon to be married off to a man in Milan. Heloise doesn’t like the idea of posing for the portrait as she doesn’t want to get married. Marriane has to paint her secretly by acting as her hired companion on an island in Brittany. How both the ladies get along, them developing a deep connection as the portrait progresses makes the crux of the story. Céline Sciamma, a lesbian herself has developed the story poignantly with so much intimacy and passion.
Celine is so successful in discussing patriarchy even without showing a male face. We don’t see an antagonist in the movie but she shows it through the situations of the ladies in her movie. Heloise is forced to come back home from her convent stay when her sister committed suicide and finds herself in her sister’s seat of getting married off to a Milanese man. She doesn’t have the option of choosing what she wants and becomes the example of oppression of that era. The house maid Sophie is another one who is a victim of patriarchy. She gets pregnant in midway through the movie, but we don’t see the person responsible. She gets an abortion with the help of Marianne and Heloise. Unlike these two, Marianne is in a more privileged position. She is a painter like her father and seems to have the liberty to choose what she wants even in that era. But it is the love story that takes the center stage in the narrative.
The chemistry between the lead pair Noemi Merlant and Adele Haenel has worked like a charm and is one of the highlights of the movie. Both Marianne and Heloise will surely remain in our hearts even after finishing the movie. Luana Bajrami as Sophie also has delivered a stunning performance. Three of them together has given the most enjoyable passage of the movie where they gets to enjoy in the marvellous mansion and the beach when Heloise’s mother leaves to the main land for a few days.
Heloise reading out a passage from the Greek Myth “Orpheus and Eurydice” under candle lighting, near a fireplace to Marianne and Sophie, during one of those nights, was one of my favourite passages of the movie. They debate about why Orpheus turns around to look at his wife Eurydice causing her to be returned to the underworld. While Sophie was so upset about why he turned back, Marianne puts her explanation as, “He chooses the memory of her. That’s why he turns. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.” This episode becomes more relevant and powerful when Marianne turns and see Heloise before saying adeu later in the movie. Celine Sciamma thus gives an extra mileage to her story by masterfully adding several layers to it through this scene.
Marianne initially painted Heloise’s portrait by observing her secretly and she revealed her secret to Heloise by showing her the portrait. Heloise was very much critical about it and said the picture didn’t have life or emotions. A dejected Marianne ruined the portrait, but Heloise then became ready to pose for her this time. This is where their emotional connection started. Marianne is compelled to go to deeper levels to capture the emotions of Heloise in her next portrait. Later in one of their intimate times, Heloise says Marianne now can remember Heloise for the rest of her life and how she will remember Marianne. Marianne draws herself in one of Heloise’s books on page 28. Several years later at an Art Exhibition, Marianne sees a portrait of Heloise, alongside a kid, with a book in her hand which had the edge of page 28 open. One of the two scenes which showed their eternal love! Next one was more moving and haunting one, where Marianne sees Heloise from distance during a concert in Milan where she is joyous and later turns into tears while listening to the music Marianne played for her when they first met. These scenes are destined to remain with the viewers for a very long time purely for how masterfully it is placed in the screenplay.
This is how Céline Sciamma combines different art forms to provide the viewers a wholesome experience. The cinematography too is also flawlessly poetic with each scene capturing the true sense of the movie. It is not often does a movie fills your heart with so much emotion.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a pure and moving tale of love. It is an onscreen poetry created by a blend of art, literature and music and a visceral piece of film making by Céline Sciamma. It touches you like an evening breeze with the magic of falling in love. The movie tells us even without eternal possession of someone, true love can be everlasting for it burns inside you like a fire. A masterpiece !!!
Streaming on : Amazon Prime, Language : French