'Take time to look at me,' commands a woman's voice in the opening moments of Céline Sciamma's fourth feature, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
, (2020), whose first shot shows a hand tracing the outline of a face, and whose first sound is the scratching of charcoal on crisp cream paper. After the brief prelude, in which we meet Marianne (Noémie Merlant) teaching life study in Paris to art students – a class of watchful girls, one of whom comes upon Marianne's eponymous painting – the story begins in earnest, as the teacher recalls how the painting, a night-time image of a woman in a dress fringed with flames, came about. The painting acts as a gateway to the past.
In late 18th-century pre-Revolutionary France, in a secluded house on a remote island on the coast of Brittany, Marianne is tasked with painting a secret portrait of unhappily betrothed noblewoman Héloïse (Adele Haenel). The artist arrives soaking wet, having leapt from a rowing boat into the sea to rescue her canvases which have been swept overboard in a gorgeous scene of crashing waves and wordless boatmen. Stripping off, she sits naked in front of a crackling fire (omnipresent in the film) flanked by glowing wet canvases, to form a lovely triptych. She has a week to paint the portrait of the reluctant bride-to-be, whose countess mother (Valeria Golino) has commissioned it to send to a rich Milanese merchant suitor, to clinch the marriage deal. Héloïse's older sister has, it seems, thrown herself off a cliff to avoid the same fate.
Since Héloïse has already refused to have her portrait painted by another painter, Marianne must pose as her walking companion, assisted by young servant girl Sophie (Luana Bajrami). She keeps stealing furtive glances at her subject in order to paint her later while alone. On their first walk towards the sea, Marianne follows Héloïse who is enveloped in a blue-hooded cloak. When Héloïse makes a sudden dash for the cliff edge, her blond curls spring free as a panicked Marianne races after her. Stopping on the very brink, Héloïse turns, showing her face to us and to Marianne for the first time. She says: 'I've dreamed of that for years'. 'Dying?' asks Marianne. 'Running,' Héloïse replies. This is the first of several wrong footings the film will deliver.
Eventually confessing to her deception, Marianne unveils her first attempt at the portrait. Héloïse is appalled. 'Is that how you see me?' she demands, shocked by the lack of life in the picture. 'The fact that it isn't close to me I can understand. But I find it sad that it isn't close to you.' She now consents to sit for Marianne, and the two women eventually work together on the portrait, a collaboration that Sciamma says mirrors the film's own creative process. The director cites Ingmar Bergman's Persona
, which also centres on two women marooned on an island, in a repetition of that film's most famous image, in which two women's faces, one in profile, the other head-on, form a single unit. Marianne and Héloïse are strikingly beautiful together.
What follows is an unfolding love story between the two women who, though uncannily similar in height and physique, have contrasting looks and modes of expression. Héloïse is fair, Marianne dark, Marianne's posture and face are animated and open, Héloïse's subdued and stern; manifesting the two women's contrasting freedoms and fates. The colour palette of the film is fitting, too, with muted grey, cream and blue tones turning warmer and brighter as the story unfolds. The film is shimmeringly beautiful. A recurring ghostly apparition of Héloïse in a white dress appears before Marianne, presaging her inevitable wedding, and adding a gothic touch to proceedings.
French writer-director Sciamma (Girlhood
) and cinematographer Claire Mathon use Marianne's drawings and paintings to infuse the film's own artful compositions. Classically-trained artist Hélène Delmaire created most of Marianne’s paintings, drawing on Corot's portraits of women within landscapes and on 18th-century portraitists such as Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun. Le Brun was excluded from the Ecole des Beaux Arts, which prohibited women from drawing the male nude in the life-classes on which academic training centred. Such exclusion made it impossible for women to achieve artistic success on a par with men, and led to their confinement to 'minor' genres such as portraiture and still life.
Relying on rich variations of natural light, Mathon's camera charts the growing pleasure and mutual attraction between the two women, a story told mainly through glances and stares. Desire is indicated through the subtlest of hints – hands brushing against one-another, the faintest of smiles crossing Héloïse's stern face. This stands in merciful contrast with the overheated explicit sex scenes of Blue is the Warmest Colour
(2013), another lesbian love story, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. Elegant compositions of long-takes and close-ups, unhurried and restful to the eye, create a sense of stillness, aided by Sciamma's decision (delivered by costume designer Dorothee Guirau) that each character should have just one main outfit: Héloïse's brocade green dress in which she will be painted; and Marianne's simpler red dress with pockets, accurate for the period and functional for her work. Scarves worn over mouths for bracing cliffside walks, when pulled down lend an erotic charge to the pair's first kiss.
The film's restful aesthetic is enhanced by the absence of any sound that is not within the world of the film, and there is no musical score. There are, though, two musical moments. The first occurs when Marianne plays a few chords from the Summer
movement of Vivaldi's Four Seasons
on the piano to the hitherto convent-bound Héloïse, who has never heard an orchestra. The second is in the film's most memorable scene, when the protagonists join a group of local women gathered around a bonfire on the beach one evening. An uncanny sound arises as if from the bowels of the earth, building in strength, and resolving into a chorus of live singing, accompanied by handclaps, of 'Fugere non possum' – we cannot escape.
It is a strangely ecstatic, even magical, moment, suggesting that although none of the women can escape their fate there is solace in their solidarity. It recalls Sciamma's Girlhood
(2014) when members of the girl gang of undereducated black working-class girls from the banlieue take over a hotel room in Paris. They dance and lip-synch to Rihanna's Diamonds
, delighting in the sheer exuberance and beauty of their own bodies.
Shortly before the a capella scene on the beach, there is a discussion between the women about how the art world keeps women firmly in their place by policing their gaze on certain subjects, an issue that forms part of a theme running through the drama concerning the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. While reading together Sophie asks why Orpheus (fatefully) looked back as he emerged from the underworld. 'He chooses the memory of her, that's why he turns,' says Marianne. 'He doesn't make the lover's choice, but the poet's.' But, ventures Sophie, 'Perhaps she was the one who said turn round'. Eurydice, she suggests, may have been the author of her own fate, the commander of his gaze.
The central characters' egalitarian friendship with the young servant Sophie is warmly depicted. When the maid discovers she is pregnant, Marianne and Héloïse band together to help, first assisting her to induce a miscarriage through strenuous exercise, running on the beach. Then, when this fails, she drinks tea made with a herbal plant, gathered by the trio in a gorgeous search scene among the long sea grasses. When this, too, does not work, Marianne and Héloïse, now lovers, accompany Sophie to a midwife/ abortionist they met at the gathering on the beach. In an extraordinary scene Sophie lies on a bed, bathed in warm light from a fire and from the sun, while the abortionist does her work, her own children bouncing around on the bed. Héloïse urges Marianne not to look away, and later, as Sophie recovers, she encourages the artist to recreate on canvas the scene they have just witnessed.
The eventual collaboration between artist and model illustrates the equality embedded in their relationship. It also serves as a metaphor for Sciamma's film itself, says Violet Lucca in Sight and Sound
: 'a rare, complex depiction of abortion in a medium that has so often ignored the procedure'. Sciamma's film is about women's creation and the 'female gaze', issues similarly marginalised. By the end of the film, with its devastating final close-up of a woman with tears streaming down her face as she listens to Vivaldi in a music theatre, held for a full two and a half minutes, we fully understand the opening instruction: 'Take time to look at me'. This moment is fleeting it suggests, savour it while you can. 'Don't regret,' said Héloïse earlier, 'Remember'.
Sciamma, whose playfully literate film won the prize for best screenplay at Cannes last year, has called Portrait of a Lady on Fire
a 'manifesto about the female gaze'. But her delicately drawn romance, which is also a story about artistic creation and its entanglement with memory, ambition and freedom as well as love, is anything but the didactic, academic treatise such a statement suggests.