You often hear artists refer to another person, usually a woman, as their muse. It’s such an ingrained artist statement, that we very rarely think about the ramifications of such a statement. Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood follow-up, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, thoroughly deconstructs such a statement by arguing that such thinking is more incarcerating than liberating.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is set in 18th Century Brittany. Artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned with the tasking of painting a portrait of the reclusive Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The only catch is that Marianne must do so without Héloïse’s knowledge, a complication that necessitates careful scrutinization on Marianne’s part. Adding to this dynamic is the inevitability of Héloïse’s marriage to a man she has never met. As the pair grow increasingly intimate, the clock ticks closer and closer to an inevitable separation.
Sciamma is fascinatingly cognizant of the artificiality of her own images. So much of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is fascinatingly composed. For example, there are multiple two-shots in the film that are framed perfectly portrait like from the side. Claire Mathon’s cinematography is exquisite.
Finding the words to describe what makes Sciamma’s film as beautiful as it is, is a Sisyphean task. This is a piece intrinsically aware of the ways we feel, remember, and see. It is achingly romantic, and achingly heartbreaking. I left feeling punch-drunk on feeling, and I hope you will too.