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 memory, from her own wrong ideas about Héloïse. And as Héloïse points out, what Marianne paints may follow the rules but has no presence, no life. I started to wonder, what will it take to see the subjugated female subject? Can we know each other or ourselves if we don’t know how to really look?

KM: Yes! What you said brings to mind the scene where Héloïse and Marianne reveal how much they know about each other just by being able to really see each other. The way Héloïse bites her lip when she is embarrassed. The way Marianne looks down and touches her head when she doesn’t know what to say. This makes me think back to when Marianne first arrived and saw a failed portrait of Héloïse by a previous painter. The unfinished portrait left Héloïse without a face. The faceless portraits really show how a woman gets blurred when you try to paint yourself onto her. The male gaze is always projecting itself onto the women and interpreting the woman in relation to the male who is looking. Even Marianne’s first attempt at painting Héloïse is a failure because she cannot capture Héloïse’s presence when she doesn’t yet know Héloïse.

As the women are left alone, they begin to really see each other. They witness each other’s presence and see themselves as a whole subject separate from the realm of patriarchal society. When Marianne finishes Héloïse’s portrait, it is astonishing how she really captures her. There’s one scene on the beach that really reveals this female space they’ve created as sacred—women drink and laugh together next to a bonfire, suddenly they’re singing, their voices harmonizing, echoing out into the night, as the fire crackles and the sea roars. The movie is set in the late 18th century, the Romanticism period when men are concerned with their relationship to nature, their relationship to God, and there, in that scene, these women know their relationships to each other, to nature, they know the space they inhabit, and they know their voices, their bodies.

TI: I’m so with you on that read of the bonfire scene. The moment offers a rare flash of women fully themselves. They aren’t a lack. They aren’t not-men (fe-male). They aren’t blank-faced paintings completed by their relation to a male looker. They are women on fire. This moment is tempered by a dark reminder of how rare it is to see women ablaze. And part of what’s so disturbing is that without substantial male roles, we’re reminded of how women perpetuate and enforce misogyny against ourselves. La Comtesse, played by Valeria Golino, really brought this home for me. Héloïse’s older sister chose to kill herself instead of marry the very unknown count Héloïse now must step in to marry. Their mother commissions the portrait to send to the count for his approval in the wife substitution. But La Comtesse also wants a portrait that captures the essence of her only remaining daughter before she is forever changed by marriage—before she becomes a Count-ess herself.

Valeria Golino portrays the conflict expertly. As Marianne and Héloïse teach us, it’s all in her presence delivered through her eyes and subtle gestures. She crosses her hands at her wrists as she tells Marianne she must sneakily paint Héloïse against her will. The gesture is demure—La Comtesse knows the rules for women of the era and will uphold them. Yet in the background is a lively photo of La Comtesse right before she lost her name to her husband’s title. Her eyes rake the painting, recall when she was most herself, and both flatten and pierce as she says she knows her daughter has refused the portrait in order to refuse the marriage. She remembers what it was like to be a woman on fire herself, but also that society demands she force her daughter into marriage. At least there will be the painting, at least there will be a film that brings us to the bonfire, if it can only flicker for a moment.

KM: Yes, I agree. It’s one of the sadder elements of the film, the way women cannot just be women, that there must always be proximity to men. It makes me think of French theorist Monique Wittig who claims that lesbians are the only figure not defined by their proximity to men, but are rather defined by their proximity to other women. She calls a lesbian not-woman because woman is defined by, as you stated, being not man, but yet connected to man. This film shows that sadly there is no space for women, lesbian or queer, to be completely free of man. And when I say man, I don’t mean individuals, but rather the patriarchal order. Héloïse and Marianne have an affair—I cannot define their sexuality through this—that they are not free to continue, they cannot remain in this female space. They must return to patriarchal society.

I love the use of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the film. Orpheus looks back, and Eurydice vanishes. The male gaze causes the woman to vanish. When Marianne departs, Héloïse demands for her to look back. She does. Héloïse does not vanish. Though they must part, and must live their lives within heteronormative society, looking at each other doesn’t erase the other one, but the male gaze, society, causes them to separate, to vanish from each other’s lives. They may hurt like Orpheus and miss each other, but both are still there, still living. This is why Marianne paints Orpheus when he is looking at Eurydice, instead of Orpheus as he turns. She was able to look. To say goodbye.

TI: The myth is such a great place to wrap up. In choosing how to re-read the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice—the story in which a husband’s decision to gaze vanishes a wife—audience members are asked to choose how we’ll interpret our contemporary situation. Marianne thinks the myth reveals the poet’s choice over the lover’s—Orpheus chooses to burn an image in his mind of his wife instead of holding on to her ephemeral physical body. Héloïse reminds us Eurydice had a final word, even if it was lost to history. Eurydice said farewell as she disappeared, though vanished, no one heard her. Perhaps, Héloïse suggests, Eurydice was the one who told her husband to turn. Perhaps she chose to be sucked into the abyss. As Maurice Blanchot argues, there is a certain liberation to be found in authoring one’s death, just as there is in re-creating one’s life through art. Such a question for women whose senses of selves is still muddied by lack in this the incomplete project of freedom. Do we choose how and when we’ll be sucked into the abyss? Do we find ownership in words even if they aren’t heard by anyone? Do we create brief flickers of ourselves, rare moments of fullness instead of lack? What will it take to step through a portrait, to burn at a bonfire, to be a lady on fire?

Kat Moore has essays in Brevity, Passages North, Diagram, The Rumpus, Entropy, Hippocampus, Whiskey Island, Salt Hill, New South, Split Lip, and others, as well as forthcoming in Image Journal, and Hotel Amerika. Her fiction can be found in Cheap Pop Lit, Hobart, and Craft, An essay of hers appears in the anthology Bodies of Truth: Personal Narratives on Illness, Disability, and Medicine. She is currently essays editor for American Literary Review.

Tiffany Isaacs is a PhD student at the University of North Texas where she writes fiction and essays. She also has an MFA from Florida State University. She is an assistant fiction editor at Narrative Magazine and a scholarship recipient at Bread Loaf’s Environmental Writers Conference.