Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★½

“When you're observing me, who do you think I'm observing?”

Celine Sciamma’s ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is a taxonomy of gazes that’s also, for better and worse, a discourse on them. This sweeping portrayal of a romance doomed to brevity asks how to memorialize an image, but also how to keep it eternally alive. Assertive in its belief that committing to every moment is the only way to consecrate it to memory, the film is ingeniously structured around a painting that will only beget tragedy.

Heloise and Marianne’s gazes frequently intersect in the film. Marianne and Heloise are most often filmed from the shoulders up, centered in the frame. Their glances toward one another are also looks straight into the camera. Claire Mathon’s cinematography establishes Heloise as a madeline -her looks are furtive but indelible. It’s clear that Marianne is drawn to her, but Sciamma amplifies the drama of their courtship by setting Heloise up as a flight risk, always prone to potentially hurl herself into the surf or off the untamed cliffs of the French coast.

This characterization is at odds with the equanimous relationship that ensues between the two twentysomething women, who navigate the class and gender constraints of society in the latter half of the 18th century. Marianne is a cosmopolitan student of her craft, bound by rules established by a string of male masters. By contrast, Heloise‘s life is more tightly controlled. For one, she loves music but has never heard an orchestra - the film, with two extraordinary exceptions, is devoid of a musical score, relying on the snap of firewood and crush of ocean waves for sonic atmosphere - and her commitment to a life of celibacy and solitude has, without her consent, become a life bound to partnership with a stranger. What the two share is passion and curiosity, and they explore and interrogate one another’s preconceptions.

The film is right to be obsessed with the faces of its two leads. Noemie Merlant’s expressions have a rare immediacy, as she seems to digest sights and thoughts with alacrity, while Adele Haenel reveals herself more carefully, never making her intentions or impressions known until she’s ready to. Seated across a room at the height of their passion, Heloise makes clear to Marianne that she’s no mere subject, but also a woman gleaning information from the person she’s staring at.

Sciamma isn’t out to question the gaze, but to point out that one is always met by another, and what’s most stirring about her film is the lack of artifice in Heloise and Marianne’s feelings for one another. They’re uninterested in control or power, both searching for a sense of truth amid the artificial, patriarchal strictures they exist in. The film frustrates when it feels compelled to elucidate those struggles in words, or through a hokey flashback structure (that, it should be said, yields to an ecstatic final shot). Sciamma’s script has more than a handful of dazzling turns of phrase, but it’s also unnecessarily keen to give some present-day relevance to a romance that’s assuredly timeless. ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is at its most beguiling and probing when the rest of the world feels far away.