Night: the eighteenth century.
At the overture of Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu), a young woman, soaked, alone, warms before a hearth. She sits in profile, knees upraised, nude, a painterly composition in which she and the fire share the center of the frame. She is flanked by two canvases, also damp from her journey across the sea to an isle of Brittany, arriving at this estate by dark, drying, too, before the warmth.
The blanks are possibility itself, the coiled human contemplating the task ahead. She is to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse, the “young girl on fire,” with the convent behind her and a hardly wanted marriage ahead. But her task is covert: Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is to befriend Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), soaking in her essence by day and rendering her in oils by night. Fire, started, persists, grows, consumes. The portrait-to-be becomes emblem, a talisman of freedom, or what freedom might become. To simply see for oneself beyond the assignment, the moment at hand. It is a memory in the making.
Céline Sciamma’s fine earlier features, which include “Tomboy” and “Girlhood,” are richly observed, but the intent intimacy of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” plies deeper water still. Her compositions are stately, painterly, even as she creates the life of one of the era’s unknown female artists. As Marianne captures essence from close yet surreptitious observation, sustained observation, gestures are no longer offhand. The act of looking, the art of looking: capturing the ephemeral with precision. Is this an essence of movies? A “female gaze”? Of falling toward a particular, momentary carnal love? Yes, yes and certainly, yes. It is the transformation of the world, a person, the figure in front of us through the artist’s livid imagination—both painter and filmmaker. (And cinematographer Claire Mathon.)
There surely are as many ways to express desire in movies—film, cinema, storytelling—as dreams yet to be dreamt, imaginations and concentration yet to be focused, artists yet to be introduced, even born. The two-hour feature-film format is a feat of compression, elision and ellipsis, and glances exchanged, that suggest hours and days and weeks between characters. There are over a hundred years and tens of thousands of movies that were made, some survived; only a few bristle and ripple in unexpected fashion. (Sciamma cites a figure of a hundred or so female artists who carved careers in an era of vogue for portraiture, beyond better-known names such as Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Artemisia Gentileschi and Angelica Kauffman.)
It’s mystical and galvanic in a movie when the expression of desire finds its form readymade, in image after image, a cauldron of motion and emotion rather than a fraught landscape, caught at breakneck speed, seemingly both offhand and etched, in movies like Wong Kar-wai’s “Chungking Express” or “In the Mood for Love” or Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” the brilliant otherworld of planet Earth in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “The Double Life of Veronique” and the Three Colors trilogy, and certainly movies by Claire Denis. It is not only looking and being seen—the subject of the film—but images that aren’t just imagery that advance “story,” but are in fact the story, colors and textures that thrill in every combination.
Sciamma, in an interview in the film’s Cannes 2019 press kit, speaks of starting at the emblematic, with “one uniform per character”: “It’s a form of tailor-made characterization and we have to deal with costume politics more than ever. The choice of cuts and materials—in particular their weight—engages at one and the same time the sociology of the character, historical truth and the performance of physically constrained actresses. I was determined that Marianne should have pockets, for example. For her general attitude, but also because pockets for women would be banned at the end of the century and vanish. I like the idea of this silhouette, so modern, which is rehabilitated as if revived.”
But her great challenge in historical re-creation, Sciamma says, is in reconstituting notions of intimacy. “Even though these women knew their lives were marked out in advance, they experienced something else. They were curious, intelligent and wanted to love,” she continues. “Their desires may be part of a world that forbids such things, but they exist all the same. Their bodies become their own when they are allowed to relax, when vigilance wanes, when there is no longer the gaze of protocol, when they are alone. I wanted to return their friendships and questions to them, their attitudes, their humor, their desire to run.”
Bong Joon-ho, director of “Parasite,” made an observation that suits Sciamma’s film as well. “I’m not making a documentary or propaganda here. It’s not about telling you how to change the world or how you should act because something is bad, but rather showing you the terrible, explosive weight of reality. That’s what I believe is the beauty of cinema.”
Héloïse and Marianne live their desires. The patience haunts as much as the passion. Lavishing in moments both secret and shared, rippling with textures and gestures, Sciamma’s film of essences is essential.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” opens Friday, February 21 at the Music Box.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.