Other critics have praised Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s artfulness. This is the best way to summon me into the discourse, contributing humbly to it. This film introduces us to a painter, Marianne (Noemie Merlant). In this fictional world, she lived and worked years before Vigee-Lebrun, who had her own her flouncy aesthetic. But she doesn’t have a lot in common with the real life Rococo-style painter. I see more of Gentileschi’s moody darkness and defiance here.
That darkness, after all, is a perfect way to start a film about these women. They don’t know anything about each other at this point. Marianne explores the chateau in Brittany where she has to work. She shows a need to have some power within the place to be able to paint her reluctant subject. That subject is Heloise (Adele Haenel), the second and oldest surviving daughter of an Italian-born countess (Valeria Golino).
Despite shrouding herself in mystery, Heloise eventually comes into the light. She thinks that Marianne is a confidante, comforting her after her sister’s suicide. She starts sharing things with her, like her inability to swim. We can assume that she’s unable to do lots of things after her parents locked her up in a convent. She only gets her freedom only for her mother to marry her off.
Marianne and Heloise’s work friendship turns into a romance. Portrait, then, explores the things that women can’t and can do in the past, as period films often do. Heloise relents and lets Marianne paint her, despite knowing that her mother will give that artwork to her future husband. He’ll get a preview of her, a privilege she doesn’t get for herself.
Heloise and Marianne understand the importance of this artwork in how it represents both of them. It’s also a comment on how women work with each other. Marianne directs Heloise while the latter gives the former some constructive criticism. It also shows how aware they are as characters as recluses, the outside world looking in.
Portrait is also mindful of the female gaze and argues for its own version of that undefinable concept. There’s a delight in the way Marianne and Heloise eventually look at each other, serving as a reflection of themselves. They’re equals instead of ideas. A comfortable philosophy while living the most interesting and emotionally volatile week in these women’s lives,
This cinematic diptych is also commenting on how they compartmentalize. They play around, sometimes with the maid, Sophie (Luana Bajrami), and then the work. There are moments when Heloise only shows certain parts of her face to Marianne. Both women, at separate times, artistically disembodies Heloise in the canvas before being content with the final product. It’s aptly symbolic of the elusive nature of past romances.
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