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“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” redefines love

There’s a moment in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” when a character asks another character to describe love — how it feels. The character is interrupted before she can answer, but, by the end of the film, one thing is clear: Director Céline Sciamma has gifted us the answer in cinematic form.

Sciamma, known for her French modern coming-of-age dramas focused on the youthful exploration of gender and sexuality, takes a leap in both subject matter and ambition with “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” a period drama centered around two adult women. The film has a unique, yet straightforward premise: Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a young woman painter hired to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) that will be sent to a Milanese suitor. The catch is Marianne must paint in secret. Héloïse, who does not want to be married off, believes Marianne is simply a walking companion. Marianne must observe Héloïse from afar, painting solely from her memory.

Set in 18th-century France, the film is surprisingly contemporary in its ideas and execution. Cinematographer Claire Mathon contrasts expansive exteriors with intimate interiors. Akin to the title, every frame possesses the composition and colors of a painting: The striking blue of crashing waves, the tenebrism of candlelit nights and the Renaissance-like framing of shots convey the visual mastery of this period drama.

Despite an alluring premise, the film truly catches fire when it courageously disposes of its setup one-third of the way into the film. The first portrait Marianne paints is revealed to both Héloïse and the audience at the same time; it’s a soft and flat rendering, intended to appeal to the male suitor. Héloïse is quick to criticize its lack of life, disappointed in Marianne’s conformity to convention. Marianne resolves to paint another portrait for which Héloïse agrees to pose. Thus, begins a profound exploration of the power of looking — in creating art, expressing desire and truly seeing someone.

As Marianne and Héloïse fall in love, the glances between them are held longer and carry more weight. Sciamma creates a lesbian romance rooted in equality; her direction, combined with the leads’ performances, imbue this equality with a playful and liberating joy, something refreshing to see in film. Haenel, in particular, gives a breathtaking performance as Héloïse by subverting the archetypal passivity of the role of a muse in plotting her transformation from object to subject. As she becomes active in the painting of her own portrait, she simultaneously reclaims her body.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a manifesto for the female gaze. Although the patriarchal constraints that make Marianne and Héloïse’s love impossible are never forgotten, the film chooses to push men outside the frame they have inhabited for so long. Using intertwining timelines, Sciamma examines both the desire and intensity of falling in love as well the profundity of its memory. With a masterfully constructed and emotionally devastating ending, Sciamma answers her question: to love is to be free.

By Sarah Aie, Staff writer
Photo courtesy of IMDb

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