Legend has it that Orpheus, son of Apollo, was so captivated by his late wife, Eurydice, that he went to the underworld to see her once more. There, the God of the Greek underworld, Hades, told him he can take his wife back if he travels out of the dark cave and into the light without looking back at her once- a task requiring great patience and faith. All was well until Orpheus reached the end of his journey and lost all restraint. He looked back only to see Eurydice’s shadow disappear and lost to the underworld for all eternity.
In Céline Sciamma’s deeply romantic masterpiece, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the concepts of faith and patience in the pursuit of love are at the forefront. It’s an incredibly tender story regarding art, love and the pain associated with wanting something we can’t have, yet living without regrets.
In the opening sequence, a beautiful dark-haired art teacher named Marianne poses for her students. As one of them asks her about a somewhat ominous painting, she recalls her time on the island of Brittany, where she was commissioned to secretly paint a portrait of Héloïse, daughter of a French countess and former convent member. The problem was, Héloïse refused to pose for artists because a completed portrait symbolized her inevitable marriage to her dead sister’s husband.
Upon arrival, Marianne is tasked with pretending to be a companion for walks so that she could sneakily memorize Héloïse’s features and paint her portrait in secret. During these sequences, director Sciamma uses fascinating techniques to reveal the character just as Marianne actively studies her. Through the gradual unveiling of the mysterious Héloïse, Marianne almost instantaneously becomes infatuated by her presence, but she chooses to stay restrained. Instead, she slowly becomes more acquainted with Héloïse through conversation and genuine inquisition.
Perhaps that is the main difference between the woman gaze over their male peers. The building sexual attraction comes from an intellectual foundation, and it’s razor sharp in intensity. Sciamma’s storytelling continues with tension and focus, yet all the while being tender and methodical as the leading ladies begin to form a bond. The characters only then act upon their desires at the point at which it is impossible for the duo to not submit to their burning attraction. But as with most women directors, Sciamma’s attention to the relationship between Marianne & Héloïse is profoundly rich with patience and intimacy. Their growing fondness never feels rushed, making it difficult to not fall in love with the characters as they fall for each other throughout this poetic feature.
Despite this fascinating and somewhat complicated romance, the story is quite simple. But that’s the magic of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Things were never over explained and nothing became too convoluted. They just were. I think it’s something audiences will appreciate most of all. Through Marianne and Héloïse’s blossoming relationship, they begin to understand one another and therefore become more seduced by each other’s existence. But don’t get me wrong. Seduced is not used here in any negative connotation. Their relationship is gradual and passionate, and it’s difficult to not become enchanted by everything their union has to offer.
About halfway through Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Marianne begins to feel guilty about her lie and comes clean. And that’s when the film ascends to masterful storytelling if it hadn’t reached that level already. Even when she eventually poses for Marianne, Héloïse knows in the back of her mind that her marriage is forthcoming and time with Marianne will cease to exist. It’s a play on Orpheus and Eurydice’s relationship. Do they proceed with the painting and lose out on love forever for a glimpse of happiness- just as Orpheus turned around to get a quick look at Eurydice? Or, will faith and patience get them through this terrible proposition?
Ironically, they spend time discussing the true meaning of the legend within the film. The naive maid Sophie argues that Orpheus couldn’t control his urge to glance once more at his lost love. But Héloïse, describing her stance as someone who understands Orpheus, opts for the alternative. She believes Orpheus knew the consequence of his actions and just needed a final glimpse to get him through – a moment of happiness for lifelong memories. In hindsight, this was her awakening. The point Héloïse knew that what she wanted, she couldn’t have; so it was best to live in the moment.
As with any tender love story, the portrayal of characters growing in love together is key. But thanks to Noémie Merlant (Marianne) and Adèle Haenel’s (Héloïse) poignant on-screen chemistry, fans of romance needn’t worry. They are magnetic together and brilliant apart as their characters are guided by genuine interest in each other and love. Interestingly enough, the cinematography and surroundings have a way of guiding the film on this journey of love as well. There are beautiful sounds of ocean waves crashing on the shore, wood cracking as the fire rips away its fibers- things that are standouts but do not overpower the story at hand. Within every frame is a picturesque still as beautiful as this love story, as dashing as the romance, and as exquisite as a striking portrait. Simply put, it’s a live painting of poetry.
Director Céline Sciamma’s romantic feature celebrates the burning desires between two women with patience and tenderness unlike any film has shown in recent years. And that is why Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the best films of 2019. It’s simply unparalleled. Just as the characters are compelled to give in to their attraction, viewers won’t be able to look away. But the great beauty of the feature is while the passion and romance are notable, witnessing the leading ladies get to know each other for who they truly are is as poetic as a lady on fire.