Grackles review Portrait of a Lady on Fire 

Directed by Céline Sciamma

Reviewed by Kat Moore and Tiffany Isaacs 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the fourth feature film written and directed by French filmmaker, Céline Sciamma. Sciamma first burst on the French filmmaking scene with Water Lilies, a film she wrote while a student at La Femis, the famed French film school. Water Lilies was the first in what would be a trilogy of coming-of-age films. In all of the films Sciamma prioritizes the female gaze, training it on characters that have not been traditionally the focus of mainstream film. Waterlilies follows the budding sexuality of a young girl in a Paris suburb amidst the background of an amateur synchronized swimming team. Her second film, Tomboy, follows a young girl who presents herself as a boy after her family moves to a new neighborhood. Girlhood follows the awakening, sexually and otherwise, of a young black teenaged girl in a rough neighborhood just on the edge of Paris. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is her first film not set contemporaneously, but it picks up thematically where her oeuvre left off.

A young painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), is hired as a replacement painter to paint a portrait of a young aristocrat woman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The portrait has been commissioned by Héloïse’s mother, and upon completion, Héloïse will marry a Milanese nobleman who she knows nothing about. In an act of resistance to the arranged marriage, Héloïse is not allowning herself to be painted. Other painters have come and gone, all unable to produce a completed portrait. When Marianne arrives, Héloïse doesn’t know that she has come to paint her. Instead, she believes Marianne has been hired to be her walking companion. Marianne and Héloïse begin having an affair.

Kat Moore: I was fortunate enough to view the film on the big screen in early March at Brooklyn Arts and Music before, well, you know. I was struck first by the cinematography. The sharp images, the hues of blue, yellow, and the sharp contrasts of green in front of white. When I watched it for a second time on Hulu, it was still just as stunning observe. The movie opens with Marianne posing in front of young girls. She is the teacher, and they are her art students. She snaps instructions to them as they sketch her. She notices that the students have retrieved one of her earlier paintings. It is of a lady standing on a beach in the dark with flames flowing up from the bottom of her dress. Through flashback, the viewers learn the story behind the painting.

The second aspect that struck me was the emphasis on female space. The opening scene had only girls and Marianne, no boys, no men. Throughout the entire movie there are only a few scenes with men—one with men who row the boat that carry Marianne to Héloïse’s house, and then a scene with one man who has assisted Héloïse’s mom with travel. Any other men come later at an art show and an opera and save but one are silent extras. This movie isn’t just about love. It is about female spaces and the female gaze.

Tiffany Isaacs: I love an opening scene that takes finishing a film to understand. Marianne commands the gaze of her female students. She tells them to take their time to look, to capture her contours. Points out the telling detail of her arm positioning—see my hands, she says. At first blush, the Marianne of the opening could seem vain, which I think is a great move by Sciamma. Audiences are primed for a male gaze—we’ve seen through that lens since the advent of silent films. We’re used to modest women or self-involved whores, or women created to explore or broaden those binaries. But what happens when the binaries aren’t part of the conversation? What happens when a woman takes control of how she’s seen, and the only ones doing the looking are also female? As the film unfolds, Marianne contends with these central questions. Early attempts to paint Héloïse fail: she sketches from snippets, from mem