REVIEW: Portrait de la jeune fille en feu [Portrait of a Lady on Fire] [2019]

Rating: 10 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 121 minutes
    Release Date: September 18th, 2019 (France)
    Studio: Pyramide Distribution / Neon
    Director(s): Céline Sciamma
    Writer(s): Céline Sciamma

Don’t regret. Remember.

An eighteenth century Italian countess (Valeria Golino) still residing at the French estate of her late husband has decided she’d like to return home. The best way to accomplish this is marrying off one of her daughters to an affluent Milanese suitor since doing so would secure both their futures while also providing an excuse to travel east along the Mediterranean. Rather than hear what the young woman has to say about this fate set before her, however, it’s discovered through her actions instead. One untimely death of the body therefore leads to another of the soul as Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) is removed from her place at a convent to take her sister’s spot at the altar. All that still remains is a portrait to seal the deal.

Where sadness drove the deceased to suicide, it’s anger that drives Héloïse. So vehemently against what’s about to happen—not to mention the prison-style seclusion her mother has enforced as a means of protecting this future she’s constructed for them—Héloïse refuses to sit for the painting. The Countess must therefore think outside the box in hiring the daughter of the artist commissioned to create her own wedding portrait decades earlier. By tasking Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to paint in secret, Héloïse can be fooled into believing this stranger’s appearance is as a companion to keep a watchful eye while finally being allowed to walk outside. By day they spend time together under the sun so memory can supply the images necessary to put oil to canvas at night.

Writer/director Céline Sciamma has thus presented a rather straightforward reason to thrust two women into each other’s lives at the start of Portrait de la jeune fille en feu [Portrait of a Lady on Fire]. Héloïse is happy for the distraction and chance to leave her mother’s house for hours at a time considering she’ll more than likely be stuck to another’s four walls in Italy very soon. Marianne is grateful for the opportunity to work and takes pains to ensure her subject doesn’t uncover the clandestine assignment. The former seemingly has nothing to worry about because she’s yet to sit for anyone and the latter is only too obliged to continue her role (a male could never walk alone with Héloïse) under the promise of additional clientele.

Everything changes, however, when the moment of truth arrives. Héloïse knows exactly what to say to knock Marianne off-balance. She pushes the painter into a similar position as her own by explaining how the canvas has locked her into a man’s world too. Why was she hired? Because only a woman could get close enough to accomplish the Countess’ goal. Why must the portrait be so staid and lifeless? Because that’s the rule such things must abide by as enforced by men. So as one is ostensibly being sold into marriage, the other finds herself a passenger to a vocation she isn’t allowed to excel at without subterfuge. Rather than be a symbol of the woman depicted, the painting ultimately epitomizes the patriarchal norms they’re helpless to combat.

With the scrub of a cloth, Marianne ruins the piece in a bid to start fresh. Now that she’s just as angry as her subject, Héloïse even agrees to sit. Finally the two are on equal footing, their struggles and false sense of freedom made transparent. The Countess has no choice but to give them five days to complete a new commission while she’s abroad. This time they will get to know one another removed from the roles dictated to them. They’ll have the ability to interact with their servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) on a human level away from employers’ watchful gaze. And they’ll look into each other’s eyes with every shred of pretense dissolved to expose a shared desire for a love their gender is denied.

It’s from this desire that passion and romance enters the equation to give each woman that which she covets most (and wasn’t certain they could achieve) despite knowing there’s no way they’d be allowed to keep it within their grasp. Does it being forbidden stop it from being worthwhile? Does their having to part and possibly never meet again render their feelings any less powerful? This is a once in a lifetime love that frustration and resentment can risk destroying in hindsight as long as the memory of what was shared becomes permanent in their hearts. To claim even one solitary second of it together with nothing but a glance will be worth whatever sorrow might arise from knowing that the feeling would be lost forever.

That’s why art can be so enchanting. Paint traps emotions in its pigment to create a reminder of what was and can’t be erased. The portrait will hold a personal jolt of electricity simply by being the product of these two women. A sketch will provide a mirror onto the past that cannot be stolen even if its physical counterpart is. But the same holds true for a song’s melody able to touch you deeply enough to conjure tears or Sciamma’s own film as a representation of the figurative fire burning within this era’s women to break loose and live a life of their own without any connection to “duty.” Suddenly the anger that wouldn’t leave Héloïse’s face and in turn Marianne’s own emblematizes their devotion.

And we see it in Merlant and Haenel’s expressions whether looking at one another on the beach without love in their hearts or standing across a bonfire that itself becomes a metaphor for their desire. Claire Mathon‘s cinematography gorgeously captures the French countryside as wind gusts while also bringing us closer to these women indoors under hearth fire and candlelight. Sciamma even adds a subplot of abortion to display exactly how different Héloïse and Marianne are from the former’s mother as far as her allowing herself to be entrenched in this world as “lesser than.” This week beside Sophie gives Héloïse and Marianne the freedom to claim what they want for no reason but greed. Their Orpheus and Eurydice know one guaranteed moment is worth countless missed chances.

courtesy of Neon

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