“Don’t regret, remember.”
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, the richly lauded Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) is as perfect as a piece of cinema art can get. It also turned out to be an alchemical film for me, opening the sacred diegetic space in which art mirrors life, and life immerses itself in art. It was the film I was about to go see in the theatre one night in late February this year, but I did not. And then the cinemas closed across Europe. Its striking central image of a woman in 18th century dress, her petticoat on fire, reminded me of a dream I had three years ago, an almost exact invocation.
The film was a message in a bottle, and I needed to wait until it rolled onto my shores.
And now it did.
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire unfolds as a liquid painting, shades of honey, earth and time, with a soundtrack burning off all that is unnecessary, capturing lightning in that bottle, for me, and anyone else that allows it in. It’s an Orphic hymn, both lamenting and celebrating a falling into love, desire in its unfolding, the agony of uncertainty, feverish awareness of life’s brevity, the urgency of bliss. Of loving and being loved in return. Capturing those euphoric moments of beauty, the prolonging of time in a lovers’ reverie. Rooted in a single held breath, we witness the terrifying, exhilarated understanding that one’s gaze is returned. It moves slowly, as a snake, a curve of a woman’s hip, absorbing details of the map that is the body and soul of the beloved.
The story is as simple and complex as you’d find in a labyrinth. All the performances – immaculate. Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young painter in late 18th century France, takes over her father’s business, and is commissioned by an aristocratic family to paint a portrait of another young woman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), at their estate on a remote island in Brittany. The portrait, itself, is the cursed object that will seal Héloïse into a marriage with a man from Milan, someone she does not know, and does not want. He was chosen by her mother, the nameless La Comtesse (Valeria Golino). This calm, calculating lady is in this way replicating her own destiny, as she was painted by Marianne’s father, before her marriage vows. Her elder daughter chose death over this predicament, and now Héloïse is brought from the convent to replace her sister’s conjugal fate. As she refused to sit for a previous portrait attempt, like a lamb to the slaughter, Marianne is thus brought in to soothe her, as paid companion, with a secret mission to remember every bit of Héloïse, and replicate it on a canvass. Give her away, by proxy of an image.
Through watching her subject, intently, Marianne falls in love. By being watched, so does Héloïse. And then, artist and her muse become one and the same, gazing at each other, in silent conspiracy, every juxtapose framed softly, flawlessly, to enhance this dance, make it symbolic, sacred, yet beautifully human.
Amidst the playful discovery of the two lovers, there is Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), the estate’s watchful young maid, as balance. A mellow, grounding presence, although clearly in her teens, and secretly pregnant. When Héloïse insists to sit for her portrait after Marianne reveals both her intentions, and destroys the treacherous painting she created, La Comtesse leaves for a week, Sophie begins her quest to abort, and Héloïse and Marianne their destined lovemaking.
The cinematic space is almost entirely populated by women, except in its beginning, and at its end. It has the beat, the feel, and the nature of the female cycle. Being a woman, every breath seemed intimate and familiar, as was the unspoken, immediate understanding between its characters – the two lovers as the inner circle, the yin and the yang, Sophie their conduit of authenticity, and La Comtesse, as the bearer of destruction. A murderous and inevitable conformity. There also looms the shadow of its hidden character, the sister that died rather than endure an existence in a lie. Each nodal point in a women’s life connected with its immediate opposite.
However, the universal depth of this unwavering masterpiece also depicts a quality of the state of passion itself, all human passion. It is without a doubt a film about a forbidden love, a relationship between two women at a time when this was an unthinkable in society, but by capturing the essence of the connection itself, it reveals the simple acknowledgement of love as an ultimate act of bravery. Life becomes easier to accept after having had the experience of love returned. Societal mores change, but not the human heart.
In its own process of metamorphoses, it becomes an ode to honesty, mutual opening, in a world saturated with false appearances. Therein, it absolves the poet’s curse – memory over flesh – its central myth one of Orpheus and Eurydice, descending.
This overwhelming state of immersion in another thus is fully honoured as a condition ultimately doomed, its burning intensity only to be endured by human flesh fleetingly, before the heavy waters of doubt and circumstance pull the lovers down, into the underworld of routine, as living death. Love as the antipode to society.
Héloïse appears to Marianne as apparition long before she becomes one. Her pale image, dressed in white, premonition of the end, the final day when Marianne will ultimately say goodbye to Héloïse in a wedding dress.
Love as memory. An inner dialogue, a ghost story, a palimpsest.
However, Marianne, now a teacher of the arts, paints the lady on fire, as she stood and watched her, full of desire. Not as pale ghost.
Héloïse, now a wife, embeds meaning into her life through a new portrait of herself, a traditional mother and child. Her finger pointing to a number in a book she is reading. The page where Marianne drew her own portrait, a luscious nude, for Héloïse.
Love gives life eternal.
This film is everything.
Author: © Milana Vujkov