By George Elkind
Freely embracing the erotic core of figurative art, Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” finds Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a working painter, visiting an island estate off the French coast where Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) and her single mother (Valeria Golino) live in isolation. There, Marianne’s contracted to paint a portrait of Héloïse, posing as a paid companion for her reluctant, sheltered charge. Héloïse’s housebound status has a purpose; she’s inherited the prospect of an arranged marriage to a stranger, a “Milanese gentleman,” since her sister’s recent, abrupt death — leading her mother to track her doings closely.
It isn’t long before some chemistry becomes apparent. On long walks among red cliffs, fields of rushes and rocky beaches, the two women slowly build a connection; Héloïse — blond, sultry and frequently irate — borrows books and asks Marianne about the outside world. Marianne — reserved, ardent and far better-traveled — shares with her what she can. Over the film’s course, Marianne’s object is to get to know her subject, a figure too lively to behave as a stereotypically passive artistic model.
Sciamma’s direction frames painting as interwoven with this process of familiarization: a progressive act of physical intimacy, of getting to know someone by tracing their every contour, and struggling to grasp at the essence of who they are. Using a familiar structure more often erected between male artists and female models (often nudes), Sciamma upsets the power dynamics and dominant norms of art and romance. The cultural assumptions and presumed differences that so often accompany her chosen “scene” are here upended, salavaging it from the calcified narratives of the straight world by centering it on two women. With this simple act, she blurs the roles within it — suggesting a romance that’s driven by need, yes, but also competition, and one in which the terrain shifts with each challenge broached between its partners.
At times the story can feel like a defense, if a deeply felt and just one. Advocating for the complexity and richness of loving someone physically, savoring them for the particulars of their body, shape and mind — if Sciamma’s version of sex and courtship can be construed as objectification, it doesn’t make it much easier to find a fault with it.
This space of basic equality — and so free and frequent questioning — is only helped by “Portrait’s” thoroughly female milieu.
Across the film’s two-hour course, there’s scarcely a man to be found. Conceiving the film’s late-1700’s island refuge as a woman’s world, Sciamma creates a space that feels grown not just from romance between two women but a community built among women more broadly. Class boundaries are upheld but never harshly, domestic tasks are swapped and shared, and folk medicine, home remedies and open conversations on women’s health — even sex and choice — all feature. This gives the feeling of a natural piece with the work’s earthy tones. Here, men exist as mostly shadows, memories, artistic precedents: words read aloud, music dimly recalled, the looming spectre of a noble marriage.
What comes through in all this is a holistic quality: a willingness to reimagine the received narratives prevailing in the dominant culture from top to bottom. Being thorough, Sciamma doesn’t stop at interrogation; instead she poses meaningful alternatives, building a small society with its own freer sexual codes, liberated in thought and consideration by taking on a queer lens.
Her path and pace in doing so prove steady in their slow-burn deliberation, but the film’s energy — evidenced by its rigor, focus and inhabited performances — feels consistently alive. Making a case for depiction as a rich, valid form of physical intimacy so long as it’s done thoughtfully, “Portrait’s” director proves her point in what’s clearly an act of love.
By George Elkind