Two Women

Amos Lassen

 Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is look at a romance doomed to a short life. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a young painter who’s hired to spend a week on an estate on a rocky island off the French coast of Brittany in order to produce a portrait of Héloïse (Adéle Haenel), who is to soon marry a wealthy man in Milan. Marianne arrives at the house soaking wet after having rescued her blank canvases from the sea. She’s housed in an unused reception room full of covered furnishings, and is warned by Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino), an Italian countess, that she’s been brought into the home under false pretenses.

Héloïse comes into the film, hidden from view until a guest of wind blows the hood off her coat off and she turns her head back to look at Marianne. Héloïse, who refuses to sit for her portrait, thus forcing Marianne to paint her from memory. Actually, Héloïse is days away from having been removed from a convent after the death of her older sister. Marianne is meant to be her friend, protect her from her grief or any destructive impulses, and simultaneously study her in order to complete the portrait that, if it pleases her Milanese suitor, will bring about the marriage.

Marianne and Héloïse are most often filmed from the shoulders up, centered in the frame. Their glances toward one another are also looks straight into the camera. Claire Mathon’s cinematography establishes Héloïse as one who evokes memory; her looks are furtive but indelible. Marianne is drawn to her, but Sciamma amplifies the drama of their courtship by setting Héloïse up as a flight risk, ready to potentially hurl herself into the surf or off the untamed cliffs of the French coast.

This characterization is at odds with the equanimous relationship that follows between the two young women, who navigate the class and gender constraints of society in the latter half of the 18th century. Marianne is a cosmopolitan student of art and bound by rules established by a string of male masters. Héloïse’s life is more tightly controlled. She loves music but has never heard an orchestra and is committed to a life of celibacy and solitude. The two share is passion and curiosity, and they explore and interrogate one another’s preconceptions.

It is the faces of the two women that strike us.  Merlant’s expressions have a rare immediacy, as she seems to digest sights and thoughts with readiness, while Haenel reveals herself more carefully, never making her intentions or impressions known until she’s ready to. Seated across a room at the height of their passion, Héloïse makes it clear to Marianne that she’s gleaning information from the person she’s staring at.

Sciamma points out that one’s gaze is always met by another. There is little art  in Héloïse and Marianne’s feelings for one another. They’re uninterested in control or power, both searching for a sense of truth amid the artificial, patriarchal strictures in which they live.

Basically “Portrait of A Lady on Fire” is a historical drama set in the 19th Century that tells of a forbidden affair between the daughter of a French Countess and a painter.  It is a quiet romance that is filled with unexpressed desire.

The Countess sees Heloise’s marriage to a Milanese nobleman as a way out from this desolate life  for her and her daughter. Héloïse refuses to cooperate with her mother’s plan. Marianna was hired as a companion so that the two women can go on walks each day.  There she can study her subject without her knowledge or suspicion  and then paint the portrait from memory at night

Before long as Héloïse starts to relax a little the two women bond and  slowly their status differences disappear and they become actual friends.  Marianna may have been staring to ensure that she captures Héloïse  accurately for the portrait, but that changes into lingering looks as they are both gradually fall in love with each other 

The relationship unfolds slowly providing tension.  It is no surprise as to what will happen next but the tenderness that is expressed more through words than mere physicality is really what is so engaging.  It works brilliantly because of the sheer chemistry between Merlant and Haenel that sizzles on the screen.

There is also a side plot that involves the House’s maid (Luana Bajrami) who the two women help dispose of an unwanted pregnancy and this involves a further equalization of their statuses and adds another dimension of feminism to the tale.  

During the day when the ladies go for walks, Marianne is given a chance to intensely gaze at her subject’s face and commit it to memory so she can paint it at night. Héloïse notices how she is being observed, and becomes aware of why only when Marianne is unsatisfied with the half-completed portrait and destroys it. Marianne then confesses her ruse, and Héloïse allows her to openly paint a second portrait. Their relationship blooms..

The female gaze of the woman artist leads to a look that goes deeper than the surface to find what’s real. The result is a sensitive and intelligent film that brilliantly tells how limiting it is for women in a patriarchal society and how there are deeper emotions to navigate even if making beauty an object of both love and art.

The two women don’t just love each other, the love the idea of living a full life. They are reclaiming mythology and art for themselves as well as reclaiming the gaze. Both Haenel and Merlant are exceptional. Merlant’s piercing gaze, her strength and her wit are all on display, but perhaps it is Haenel, whose initial emotional numbness melts into passion who steals our hearts.

The end is  powerful and for me, unexpected but it does provide closure to a gorgeous film. Here is an absolutely beautiful look at love from a woman’s point of view.