The first hour of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a study in restraint, quiet and reserved with neither visual flourishes nor music — with the exception of portraitist Marianne’s (Noémie Merlant) halting harpsichord rendition of the Presto from ‘Summer’ from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons — to entice viewers into an emotional connection. It focuses on the windswept emptiness of Brittany at the close of the 18th century, all long grass and unbroken stretches of dun sand. Merlant’s tense, angular features — more than a little reminiscent of Virginie Gautreau as she appears in John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X — and the sullen anger of Adèle Haenel’s performance as Héloïse, the subject of the titular painting, imbue the film’s clean, quiet imagery with a sense of withheld yearning.
Portrait is beautifully lit, its sets cut by wedges of pale blue-white morning light, immersed in the buttery sepia glow of candle flames, and doused in soft but clearly demarcated shadows. Even when more overt emotion begins to penetrate its story, Sciamma’s film remains decidedly minimalist. Ardent kisses and the slow, deliberate fucking of an armpit with a crooked finger are held in the same painterly shot compositions as landscapes and empty rooms. Rather than creating an emotional remove, though, the spare intensity of Sciamma’s direction imbues these glimpses of abandon with a wild fragility. A shot of Marianne turning suddenly away from Héloïse, unable to bear the sight of her lover at the moment of their separation, holds the painter’s frantic body language as gently in the center of its watchful frame as a spider’s web cradles a struggling fly.
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The Burning Gaze
Much of Portrait is concerned with the capturing of images as both a discipline and an emotional act. Its scenes of portraiture as a trade are at once highly technical and deeply intimate, wet paint and the steady motion of Marianne’s hands treated as sensually as a sleeping Héloïse’s just-parted lips. When a furtive Marianne sketches Héloïse’s hands in secret it feels like a dirty surrogate for touch, a stolen caress so light it might not have happened at all. Later, when the lovers accompany the estate’s maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), to a midwife’s home for an abortion, a distressed Marianne averts her gaze. “Look,” Héloïse tells her. It’s an imperative, to bear witness to the hidden lives of women of which no record but memory will remain.
The film’s final image is one of hungry observation going unobserved as Marianne catches sight of Héloïse, now married, attending a performance of The Four Seasons. We watch with her as Héloïse is wracked with emotion by the piece, which Marianne once played for her. Her chin trembles. Tears well. She laughs, her smile watery, and never sees that Marianne is watching her. The transformation of the beloved into an image is a cyclical process of creation and destruction without true resolution. Like the tongues of flame which eat first at Héloïse’s unfinished portrait and then, later, at the trailing hem of her dress, the very act of perception begins to consume its subject, but in so doing it brings them deep into the heart of the image’s maker even as that heart is exposed to them in turn. Art, Portrait argues, is nothing if it is not naked, raw, and personal.