2019 TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: On the surface, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the Best Screenplay winner at Cannes that just played at the Telluride Film Festival, is a conventional period drama. Two people fall for each other surrounded by lavish costumes and moody rooms and sets. But, like so many great works of art, there is so much more to this film than meets the eye. The story, about two young women in 1770 France, emerges as a beautiful allegory for creating a portrait as the equivalent of falling in love. You do not know when the process of becoming devoted to someone is completed—any more than you know when a painting is finished. It simply is. The point is that if the love is true, then the image will emerge true and beautiful as well, as it does, more broadly, with this moving motion picture. Those are just some of the exquisite lessons that emerge from this beautifully romantic movie.
Young Marianne, a painter played by the beautiful Noemie Merlant, travels to an island off the coast of France, commissioned to paint the equally stunning Heloise (Adele Haenel), a subject that refuses to pose for her print as much as she resists opening her spiritual self to the outside. Heloise declined to sit for the last artist commissioned with the task, such that the only thing remaining from the prior attempt is the picture of a body with an effaced face. Marianne must pass herself off, therefore, as a handmaid, pretending her task is to chaperon Heloise on her walks along with the cliff-jagged cost, while furtively observing her closely and secretly painting her.
The figure of Heloise is, at first, elusive and mysterious to Marianne. It is not just that the canvas she encounters has no face. When Marianne is first asked to accompany Heloise on a stroll, Heloise’s back is turned to her as Heloise walks away briskly—and then violently—out the door and towards the edge of a cliff, before Marianne can even lay eyes on her face. The canvas in Marianne’s mind for Heloise’s future drawing may be blank, but the mysterious young woman quickly begins to fill it with her fiery spirit and resolute ideas and determination.
Heloise is obviously the titular character. She is fire, though her passion is suffocated by the mores of the society she lives in, specifically her mother and her expected upcoming marriage to a Milanese man she has never met. Flames are the artistic equivalent of rage and, Heloise, who flouts attempts at elucidating a smile out of her, dryly proclaims that “anger always wins out” in her emotions. Marianne, meanwhile, is water. She is a fluid, calming influence, and has no problem thrusting herself into the ocean for her craft. While it may seem that the two elements are fundamentally incompatible, it is not so—too much of either can be lethal for a person, after all, and the two can coexist together to spawn life itself. Importantly, Heloise does not know if she knows how to swim or not, creating an opening for Marianne to teach her a thing or two after all.
As “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” progresses, the two women slowly discover the soul of the other, through strolls along the water and long nights with the company of no one other than the innocent young housekeeper Sophie who is in dire need of both their help. In one vivid, lyrical moment, Marianne observes Heloise catch literal fire, a memory she etches into a particularly beautiful piece of art that will later serve as a repository for Marianne’s own memory as well. Indeed, as the two women grow closer, Marianne’s inspiration flourishes deeper, and her steady pencil and brushstroke capture increasingly poignant and exquisite snapshots of her subject, Heloise.
But the central metaphor in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is that of the process of creating art as the process of falling in love. Director Celine Sciamma must understand both phenomena intimately, because she weaves in the two, seamlessly and poetically, without the help of much of a score or other trappings to speak of, with little more than her own steady hand and the stunning looks and acting chops of her protagonists. Haenel as Heloise is tasked with a particularly difficult task, that of conveying a non-committal, half-smile when she sits to be painted, so that the lock to her soul can remain difficult to break for Marianne as much on the painting as in the flesh.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is also an examination of the nature, perhaps tragic or at least forlorn, of love itself. When the two young women read the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to the impressionable Sophie, they offer competing theories as to why the titular character would have defiantly looked back moments before he was to rescue his love from the fires of Hades. “He made the choice of a lover,” one theorizes, insinuating that Orpheus’s love was so great that he could not act within reason. “Perhaps he made the choice of a poet,” is the retort, suggesting that artists—and humans—prefer the idea of love as a concept unblemished by the mundane and cruel reality of existence. The film offers neither an answer nor, really, a choice. The point is that true love, such that inspiration and desire can and do coexist in a pair of lovers.
The love as art allegory becomes complete as Marianne progresses in her task of capturing Heloise for posterity, as she realizes that a portrait she has been commissioned to paint is only a step in gifting her subject to another person. Love, like creating art, inevitably invites pain and forced separation. It is not melodramatic, it just is.
But the purpose of all this at times cruel exercise emerges as Marianne’s work materializes. There is a heavenly delight in each successive, careful layer of color, and each stroke of the brush. Again, it is both the talent of director Sciamma at portraying these moments so intimately and of her stars conveying such believable emotion. Rarely do films portray the attraction between two people with such convincing yet subtle passion. Rarely does sensuality jump so quietly from the canvas, I mean, the screen. Rarely does a movie embrace both the pointlessness of love (or art) and the irreplaceable need for it.
The ultimate simile here is that “Portrait of a Lady of Fire,” the film, is a work of art that emerges slowly and carefully, as the artist and the subject (the audience), become acquainted in a slow, deliberate manner. By the end, when you have seen few tears but many exchanges of lustful looks, you may be in love. In this contemplative movie, what matters most is that you allow yourself to feel what may have been previously hidden within.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” will have a limited U.S. release by Pyramid Films on December 6, 2019