The French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, ercently released for home viewing, has been nominated for a long list of international film awards and has won a healthy number of them. With this project, French writer/director Celine Sciamma has intended to depict a story about falling in love and showing the span of a deeply-felt but pretty much unrealizable passion.
The story unfolds in the late 18th century and involves an artist, a young woman, as she visits the household of an all-female family in Brittany. She has been commissioned by the mother to paint a wedding portrait of the daughter, Heloise. The mother, a countess, has made an arrangement with an unfamiliar Milanese highborn gentleman that he will marry her daughter. When the daughter who was set for marriage leaps from one of the scenic seaside cliffs near their estate, the mother calls her second daughter, Heloise, back from the convent where she was comfortable to satisfy the marriage contract.
Sciamma’s story has few plot twists. Instead, her intent is to paint a cinematic portrait of the relationship that develops between the artist and Heloise. She succeeds in every imaginable way. With a brush similar to Hogarth’s, Sciamma tints and shades the frames of her film. The lighting, too, is painterly. The colors in each scene are carefully chosen.
Much of the film is spent in the company of the artist and Heloise, occasionally they are sharing time with the servant girl who is a much more developed character than one might expect. Still, basically, it is the artist and Heloise’s film. Sciamma paints the two women to complement each other. The artist has dark hair, pale skin, the largest deep brown doe eyes you can imagine, a sharp nose and a slightly down-turned mouth. Heloise has fuller, softer features. She is a blonde with blue eyes and lips that seem a bit pouty. These details matter to this film more than to a conventional piece of story-telling. After all, here the filmmaker is the visual artist. So we have the cinematic artist portraying the artist character portraying the character Heloise.
There are wonderful moments of recognition in the script. At one point, as the mother converses with the artist, she laughs. “It takes two to be funny,” she says. What an interesting line! Later, Heloise tells the artist that the image she paints of her for her own keeping will become the way she sees her, every time she thinks of her in years to come. How perceptive. When we lose a loved one and remind ourselves of them by looking at a particular photo, that photo becomes the memory of that person.
Sciamma doesn’t leave her audience with only a single plot thread. She includes a fascinating sequence about 18th century abortion, and even throws in a scene where the three young women enjoy playing cards and show some sense of gamesmanship not often revealed in 18th century female characters. She also includes an exotic scene of a feast night in which the local women gather on the beach in a ritual and sing. It almost sounds like doo wop.
In Portrait of a Lady on Fire we study the process of love as it unfolds and develops, and then further evolves. Because so much imagination is experienced by an individual who is an artist, the film continually makes us aware of the creative process. Literature and painting become parts of the plotline. We even visit the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridice which blend their predicament into this tale.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is so subtle in its narrative and so studied in its pacing that it comes as a surprise to see where the film goes in its final scenes. It suddenly becomes complete in its storytelling. It is an engrossing journey, one that is told with sincerity and originality.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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