Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which has already awed festival audiences, hit select cinemas in October as part of London Film Festival before a more widespread run in February 2020, bringing with it a fresh period sensibility, a slow-burn love affair, and an almost utopian vision of women living outside of the influence of men. Set on the island of Brittany in the late 18th century, the French film brings together a young woman who’s unhappily betrothed and the female painter who’s been (secretly) hired to paint her portrait. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) observes, and eventually, Heloise (Adèle Haenel) consents to being seen; naturally, they fall in love.
While men loom on the periphery of the lovers’ time together, the movie doesn’t dwell on the larger world, instead focusing on a sisterhood that was real and familiar to the filmmaker and her collaborators. “I wanted to create images where you want to live, that could be a shelter, and I feel like that too,” writer/director Céline Sciamma says. Living in the world of this movie, she adds with a smile, “felt good.”
Set the love story aside for a moment, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire is still a deeply emotional watch, especially for women. When Heloise’s mother (Valeria Golino) leaves her daughter, the artist, and the sole servant of the house, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), alone, they establish a new and egalitarian dynamic, working together, relaxing together, creating together. Sciamma says that she wanted to “portray how solidarity among women can abolish social class or social hierarchy.”
That solidarity is a reflection of the way the film was made. Because there were more women in the crew than on other films she’s worked on, Haenel says that it enabled her and her colleagues “to take seriously our own perspective.” She adds, “You have to experience this hole in your history, the fact that you miss some representation to actually do it, to need it. I think it has something to do with not being ashamed of thinking that this is important, what we’re doing.”
That said, Merlant doesn’t see Portrait of a Lady on Fire as excluding men or male audiences. Rather, she calls it “an invitation.”
“I think it’s important for [men] to also see how we are,” she says. “It’s interesting to be open to see how [women] are when they’re by themselves, and how can they express their desire, how can they express their art.”
That expression includes much metatextual commentary on modern filmmaking itself. Marianne’s character is a fictional representation of the many real women artists who were working in the shadows at that time and have been largely forgotten by history. (Women filmmakers continue to be denied opportunities.) Heloise is the object of her art who insists on retaining her agency. “I want to talk about how muses have always been considered silent women, being inspiring just because they’re here and beautiful,” Sciamma says. “That’s not our experience of it.”
All three women talk about the movie as pure collaboration, down to its sweet, silly, and relatively tame love scenes, something that isn’t always guaranteed. Haenel describes other sex scenes she’s shot as “having something stolen” from her; whereas here, she felt in control and also protected. That freedom and the ongoing dialogue, Merlant believes, results in a better final product. “If there is a director that sees the actor really as an object, or it goes in one way, without sharing, without collaboration, it’s boring,” she adds. “With the collaboration, you can feel the other in front of you. You can receive a proposition, accidents. You can be surprised. It’s a vision that is shared.”
In that vision, Portrait of a Lady on Fire also avoids period conventions that validate the male gaze. For example, there’s no panic or questioning involved in its portrayal of same-sex desire. “I [didn’t] want to lose time by portraying patriarchy, didn’t want to lose time to fake conflicts between people who don’t have much time, didn’t want to lose time about reproducing this convention of an impossible love story,” Sciamma explains. Haenel appreciates that the film doesn’t perpetuate the idea that women in this era had few options and small lives. “It’s also a way to say, ‘You cannot ask for more because before it was worse,’” she explains. “It says ... that society keeps getting better for everyone, which is not true.”
In ignoring many storytelling tropes audiences are unfortunately accustomed to, Portrait of a Lady on Fire subverts period filmmaking and delivers a surprisingly contemporary story. It’s a film that will make you feel a lot of things — safe, being one of them.