In one of the scenes in Céline Sciamma’s historical queer French drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, three women are discussing Greek mythology. They are debating why the poet and musician Orpheus turned to look behind him, at his wife, Eurydice, just as they were about to escape the underworld. This caused Orpheus to lose Euridice forever in the land of the dead.
One of the women theorizes, “He chooses the memory of her. That’s why he turns. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.”
This theory is the essence of Sciamma’s lesbian love story between a painter and her subject. In the film, the two women decide to let go of each other, when they can run away and live together in secret.
The narrative is firmly anchored on the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, and uses music as a tool to conjure memories of love. In one of the earlier scenes, the painter even follows her subject on foot. The subject, like Orpheus, turns around to look at the painter — hence, sealing their tragic fate.
The painter in the film is Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who rides the rough seas to get to a small castle on the isolated island of Brittany on the northern coast of France. She’s a portraitist, commissioned to paint a young aristocrat, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who is about to be sent off to Milan to marry a nobleman against her will.
Thus begins the two women’s love story in 18th-century France — two decades before the French Revolution.
Portrait is more than just a same-sex love story, as Sciamma uses the film’s time setting, the year 1770, to paint her ideas of freedom. Her women are constrained — from their art to their life choices, with Héloïse suffering the most.
The writer-director subtly infuses the culture of the 2010s in her period drama — tackling suicide, abortion, equality and homosexuality. Perhaps this is a device for her modern-day audiences to appreciate the “freedoms” they enjoy, or are still fighting for.
Regardless of the viewers’ values and worldview, one cannot deny Sciamma’s artistry and mastery of film. She shows, rather than tells, and discards excesses and gratuity to depict the story’s bare essentials. Minimalist in dialogue, with prolonged silences, she builds the love story through tension between her protagonists.
Because it’s written and directed by a female director, who is also a lesbian (Sciamma was, at one point, in a real-life relationship with Haenel), it is devoid of graphic sex scenes or the “male gaze.” The film, right from the start, wants to tell a story of true love, not lust.
The visual elements of Sciamma’s work, however, is more powerful than the personal values and opinions she conveys. Jampacked with representations, the film even feels like agitprop under the guise of visual poetry. But its strength lies in Sciamma’s virtuosity.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire looks breathtaking. It’s a film of exquisite beauty. Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon create “moving paintings” — each frame imitating a neoclassical artwork. The women, particularly the handmaid Sophie (Luàna Bajram), look as if they just stepped out of a Rembrandt.
The filmmaker also uses many stark contrasts: Marianne’s black hair against Héloïse’s golden locks; the austerity and rigidity of the women’s movements against the film’s soft color palette; and a picture of a suppressed life on a vast, unobstructed island.
Winner of the Queer Palm Prize and Best Screenplay Award at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Portrait of a Lady on Fire may not have anything new to say, but it’s one of the most aesthetically pleasing films of the century. The film is a classical painting in itself, a work of fine art.
4 out of 5 stars
Available for rental at the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) Channel until 30 June