Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020) - Céline Sciamma
The opening sequence of Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens with a very defined and determined repositioning of the gaze. The scene, through its focus on student artists, looking and viewing the model and receiving direction from her on how to look and see, beautifully, elegantly, and deliberately sets up the female gaze. This opening is key to understanding, enjoying, and appreciating the brilliance of both the story Sciamma is telling and how through mastery of the cinematic language she intends to tell this story. Portrait of a Lady of Fire is about looking, but more than just looking, it's also about seeing and understanding the power this can have on the looker and the person being looked at.
The story is delicately simple. Marianne, a painter, is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse, who has recently left a convent to be married. Héloïse is reluctant to be married, having never met her future husband, and being offered up by her mother after the recent death of her sister, who was intended to marry the man. To complicate Marianne's task Héloïse is unaware of the intentions to paint the portrait, and so Marianne must do so in secret, observing Héloïse on daily walks, etc.
Héloïse is elusive. On their walks, she seems to purposely be hiding her face, never walking alongside Marianne and rarely engaging with her. Marianne attempts to sneak looks and glances at Héloïse. She paints in the evening, in secret. Slowly a growing fascination and passion grow between them. Héloïse begins to open up about her fears for marrying a man she has never met and moving to Milan. She laments her lack of freedom or choices in life. Marianne reflects this, revealing the struggles she has in her life as a female artist. Sciamma handles this developing intimacy and affection with a subtle grace that feels intrinsically cinematic. Everything is helped by the stunning locations and cinematography. Their walks along the coast and beach see their growing passion reflected in the tumultuous ocean, the waves crash against the rocks and onto the beach. It's as if the feelings they are unable to express to each other are manifesting in the environment around them.
Eventually, Héloïse discovers the real reason Marianne is here and demands to see the portrait. What is reveals is nothing. It neither captures Héloïse nor reveals its painter. Neither Héloïse nor Marianne is happy with the portrait. Héloïse agrees to pose for Marianne. Now their passion and love is on the surface and Sciamma showcases how their relationship has developed in one of the film's most insightful, honest, and intimate scenes. As Héloïse poses for Marianne she reveals her observations, how certain expressions reveal certain character traits or moods. It's a wonderful scene that gets the heart racing as it both reveals how great painter Marianne is, and how integral her powers of observation need to be to capture a person in portraiture, but also it reveals how much she as looked and seen Héloïse. Beyond the surface, deep into her soul. Knowing her in a way the future husband could never know through just viewing the wedding portrait. But in a clever twist, Sciamma has Héloïse turn on Marianne and reveal that whilst Marianne has been watching and observing her Héloïse has been doing the same. The passion in this scene is electric and it marks a significant turning point in the film, and in their relationship.
Another scene of equal power and beauty occurs after Héloïse and Marianne help Sophie, the housemaid have an abortion. The women attend a local bonfire where the women sing. It's a scene that gave me goosebumps and reminded me of a similar scene in Sciamma's previous film Girlhood. Both use music to give the films female characters transcendent moments of true freedom. In Girlhood it was the young women dancing in a hotel room to Rhianna's Diamonds. Here it is a folk song sung majectically by a group of women as the glow from the fire lights their faces. It's also the moment in which the films title become explicit.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of those rarest of cinematic masterpieces. A truly wondrous film that showcases a filmmaker in complete mastery of her craft. As a love story, it reminded me of the restrained power of Wong Kar Wai's In The Mood For Love, and demonstrates how, when a filmmaker is wielding such power it can leave you utterly breathless. How Sciamma interweaves the story and growing love between Héloïse and Marianne, their environment, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the power of the gaze and power of art is something truly astonishing and makes Portrait of a Lady on Fire one of the greatest works of cinema in the 21st century.