Analysis: Portrait of A Lady On Fire (2019) and The Dynamics Of Love
Updated: Aug 15
Disclaimer: Spoilers Ahead!
If you have not watched the film DO NOT read a plot summary and come back here. Just watch it first. Please.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a masterfully crafted feature which can easily make its way into the lists of the most beautiful films ever made. It is one of those rare synergies which truly uphold the words "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts", riveting audiences from the very starting frame to the end. Too much has already been said about the exquisite experience that the film offers, and this is not an "Oh My God! That Was Brilliant!" post, although I can easily write at least 10 articles on that. Since Portrait of A Lady on Fire is at its core a love story I will try to explore the dynamics of love expressed in the film and the themes it draws upon.
Love is looking and being looked at. The film begins in a painting class with Marianne(Noémie Merlant) instructing her students- "Take time to look at me." Much of the film involves the characters simply looking at each other and eventually beginning to truly see what lies beneath. Marianne has been commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse without Héloïse posing. She is expected to observe Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) while guising herself as her walking companion and later paint her from memory. Marianne observes Héloïse during the days, and remembers her during the night. The premise of the film itself puts Marianne in a position to grow a deep interest in Héloïse. Loving someone requires paying keen attention and trying to memorize every detail, and that is exactly what Céline Sciamma and Claire Mathon forces us to do.
Héloïse's sole reaction to Marianne's betrayal seems to be a comment on Marianne's "looks" implying that the gazes were significant to Héloïse, and something she may have been searching an explanation for. On viewing the first portrait Héloïse asks, "Is that how you see me?". A disconcerted Marianne takes a moment to gather herself before explaining that it's not only her but also "rules, conventions, ideas". This is where the film establishes what Marianne is to learn through her experience- to see beyond rules, conventions, ideas and find the life and presence which Héloïse talks about. “The fact it isn’t close to me, that I can understand,” adds Héloïse, “But I find it sad it isn’t close to you.” Marianne's painting of Orpheus and Eurydice (which she paints some years after this experience) is both close to her and breaks conventional ideas of depicting the story.
When Héloïse poses for the first time the sight of her unsettles Marianne who realizes that she hasn't been able to capture Héloïse at all. This is where she begins to truly look at Héloïse. That very night she starts to bleed. The seeing gets most prominent in the very next painting session when the characters begin analyzing each other in what feels like an exotic competition between two evenly matched contenders vying for the other's heart. What follows is a series of glances brimming with both intrigue and intimidation- the perfect ingredients for passion. "If you look at me, who do I look at?". Not only do they look at each other, neither Marianne nor Héloïse ever hesitate to correct the other every time they feel they have been looked at wrong. Even the fears of Héloïse's impending marriage is something that Marianne literally "sees". Key scenes like the one at the fête and the staircase goodbye use gazes as powerful storytelling techniques finally culminating in the ending scene where the viewers are placed directly into Marianne's eyes as we observe Héloïse along with her. Perfectly set up by Marianne's words "She didn't see me," as soon as the camera turns to Haenel's brilliant performance we realize that although Héloïse didn't "see" Marianne, Marianne is probably all she is seeing. As we feel a sense of victory in Héloïse's tears we hope that Marianne does too.
Some amount of constraint is essential to any romance and Portrait is no exception. Even with almost zero male presence the film effectively portrays the prevalent, all-pervading hand of patriarchy and the limitations it forces onto women. These constraints are what causes Héloïse's sister to jump off a cliff; Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) to opt for a risky abortion; and Héloïse's mother to not be able to return to Milan for 20 years. Unlike the mother and Sophie neither Marianne nor Héloïse has come to terms with the patriarchy. On her introductory scene Héloïse tells Marianne that she had dreamt of running for years, giving us a hint as to how Héloïse's life might have been. Later in a discussion Marianne talks about how women painters are prevented from practising great art. This is evident towards the end too when we learn that Marianne had to submit her painting under her father's name. The girls' wishes to break free from the restrictions yet their helplessness to actually do something about it is what makes the two of them relate to each other.
The second more significant constraint that the girls have to face is that of time. They are acutely aware of the finite nature of their affair and the fate that awaits them, and even though they do not attempt to fight their fate they do wish for more time. This is evident in key dialogues which could easily have been framed in other ways- "Not everything is fleeting.", "She said it makes time last longer." The strategically paced writing and editing (Julien Lacheray) makes us actually feel time expanding. After their first night in bed things drastically change- Héloïse starts to give painting ideas; the painting sessions turn into playtime; the entire film seems to loosen up with longer takes and lax frames; simple, light conversations replace the short, crisp, spaced out and loaded exchanges; less gaps between each action; and less of staring and more of seeing. After their argument as they reunite on the beach Héloïse initially seemed resistant, but her restraint fades away with the words "Your mother returns tomorrow". This is a couple who doesn't have the time to be mad at each other. Shortly after Héloïse asks, "When do we know it's finished?". "At some point we stop", replies Marianne, and only after a few strokes abruptly declares it finished leaving us thinking, "Oh that's it?". I'll discuss more on the finiteness of their romance in the Honesty section.
The first time we hear of Héloïse Marianne asks "Has she left holy orders?", to which Sophie replies "They brought her home". From this single line of dialogue we learn that Héloïse didn't come of her own volition. In the absence of Héloïse's mother the constraint has been presented through Sophie. Having to act "normal" in front of Sophie preserves the secret nature of their romance and allows them a kind of excitement that only the threat of discovery can provide. Where the film is unique is that we feel this restraint even in their most intimate moments. They don't tear into each other like the forbidden romances we are used to viewing and there's no passionate erotic sequence where they lose themselves in the act of lovemaking. Instead it is a slow paced unraveling and intertwining where the freedom to truly lose oneself into each other is not a luxury accorded to the two characters, not even on their last night together. We keep anticipating this explosion, this burst of desire but we don't get to experience it till the very end. In this romance the ultimate celebration of love is not an orgasm in a night of passion, but a stream of tears years after both of them have moved on with and gotten settled in their new lives. Héloïse's words "Not everything is fleeting. Some feelings are deep" begin to echo in our heads.
This constraint is not simply a film-making trick designed to rivet audiences. Héloïse is clearly reluctant to completely give in because she has zero doubts about the finiteness of their relationship. She literally pulls back after their first kiss leaving us wanting. When Héloïse explains that she didn't "dream" of Marianne but "thought" of her we realize that unlike Marianne she is much more grounded in "reality". Throughout the romance we feel a certain distance from Héloïse as compared to Marianne who seems much more comfortable and open with her emotions. This restraint is what makes the ending scene all the more significant. In the theatre Héloïse finally surrenders to her emotions as they pour out of her like the storm in Vivaldi's Summer. She has already settled in her new life and is no longer resistant to it; she is not under her mother's command anymore; and she isn't anticipating the pain of losing Marianne either as she has already lost her. Alone in the theatre and free from her restraints she finally lets herself break in a way that we imagine she had always wanted to break. After about 2 hours of successfully immersing us in the captivity that Héloïse suffers and the reticence she practices the film takes it all down in one fell swoop. Héloïse finally let herself go, sobbing, crying, smiling, heaving, her vulnerability shining in its full glory. Watching this scene I knew this is the end, because nothing can be shown after this that won't make one go "The ending ruined it!
Just a thought- in Héloïse's interpretation of Orpheus and Eurydice is this why Eurydice calls Orpheus to look back? Maybe in death Eurydice finally found a freedom that she hadn't been able to experience in her life. Maybe she understood that even if she went back her life would forever be indebted to Orpheus' efforts, and what is debt if not a constraint?
Marianne's gets her first glimpse of Héloïse through a conversation with Sophie. In the very next scene while taking off the covers Marianne is faced with a mirror. This is essentially what the film is about, Marianne coming face to face with a mirror in Héloïse. Although Marianne is seemingly "free" both she and Héloïse are in the "exact same place". The power play between the two girls has been established early in the film when they visit the beach for the first time. As Marianne is trying to take in the details of Héloïse's features, in what is a brilliant collaboration of cinematography and direction, Marianne finds out that Héloïse is looking back. This power play is present throughout the film and I won't go into citing every instance of it (if I try listing all the instances I might as well attempt at a post-facto screenplay). The unique characteristic of this power play is a respect for each other's situations and perspectives. At no point do the characters try to vilify each other or minimize the other. They simply re-establish equality whenever they believe they have been looked down upon without once resorting to direct ad hominem. As Héloïse states- "Equality is a good feeling."
Marianne finds herself in a difficult position where she is unable to reach out to Héloïse or even see her smile. In this very opportune moment Sophie's deceptively simple suggestion "Have you tried to be funny?" tells her that this time she has to actually engage with her subject. Similarly Héloïse is not merely a passive subject of Marianne's painting but an active participant in the process. This is why she agreed to pose. On seeing the smudged painting Héloïse realized that her approval and agreement holds significance to Marianne. This respect is of crucial importance to Héloïse, given that her fate had been decided without her consent or consultation. Marianne by coming clean to Héloïse herself, and Héloïse by agreeing to pose decide to surrender to each other rather than simply "getting caught". The equality and the power play on which the romance is based is most evident in two pivotal scenes- a painting session where the two characters analyze each other, and an argument regarding Héloïse's alleged complicity in the marriage- an erotic competition and a severe argument both reinforcing the same theme.
Similar themes of equality is present in Héloïse's interpretation of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice where both Eurydice (by calling Orpheus) and Orpheus (by turning) collaborate to decide the fate of their love. Yet this equality is not entirely established until their final goodbye, thanks to a very simple trick entrenched in the language itself. In the French language "Vous" is the formal "You", while "Tous" is the informal "You" used in close or intimate relationships. Throughout the film Héloïse addresses Marianne via "Vous" with one single exception- the final staircase goodbye where Héloïse calls out "Retourne-toi!" ("Turn Around") in the informal mode. Finally in this single moment, just for seconds they experience each other as true equals in a breath of intimacy that they had been denied all this while. Marianne's last gaze became so much easier to understand once I learnt of this.
One of the key characteristics of the film is honesty, both from the characters and the filmmakers. The romance is not a way out- they make no plans of any rebellion or grand escape; they never promise forever, not even for the most fleeting of seconds. It's the acknowledgement of its finiteness that makes their love so timeless. The entire point of the sister's story is to establish that there is no way out of this marriage except for suicide. We are so used to love stories and secret romances where one character is practically caged and then someone appears not only with love but also with the promise of a better life. While reading/watching these stories I often wonder what was more attractive- the romance or the promise of a different life? (I have similar questions for a lot of real-life love-stories too). In the Portrait of A Lady on Fire that question never comes to mind because neither the characters nor the filmmakers ever pretend that there is a chance of this romance surviving. Even in Titanic (2009) (a film that Sciamma has admitted to studying extensively for Portrait) we root for the lovers hoping for a way out of the crisis, and the tragedy hits when the characters' (and our) hopes get crushed. In Portrait the tragedy has been woven into the story, it is accepted as a normal part of life. In fact the first time that Marianne and Héloïse begin to openly acknowledge their desire for each other the words "non possum fugere " (Latin for "we cannot escape") is being repeated over and over again in the background. They cannot escape- either from the patriarchy or from their desire for each other.
Watching Marianne leave doesn't break your heart, because you knew this was coming. You have been preparing for this along with the characters. Sophie's question "Will you be ready?" (right after breaking the news of Héloïse's mother's return) is not only to Marianne, but also to us, and when Marianne answers "Yes" we harden ourselves too. Marianne's long gaze and smile at the staircase could not have been possible had there been any feeling of betrayal or guilt.
The ending scene is of prime significance to the theme of honesty. The first time in the film that Héloïse goes to listen to music she felt Marianne's absence; this time though she probably felt Marianne's presence. "Don't regret. Remember," says Marianne on their last night together and that's exactly what Héloïse does. Without this scene the entire affair could have been misinterpreted as a simple rebellion on Héloïse's part. The ending scene (and the finger at page 28) cements the fact that their love was honest and wasn't merely an extended passionate bachelorette party. Much like the flowers of Sophie's embroidery the essence of their love stays long after it has "ended".
This one I will let you ponder on for yourself. On their first night together Héloïse asks, "Do all lovers feel they're inventing something?" Well I'll love to know in the comments what you think about that question, and how the film uses the novelty factor.
I'll end with two points that I just could not edit out, and didn't know where to fit in above either. First is that the lesbianism in the film has not been shown as a rebellion against the patriarchy or a disavowment of men. Unlike most other queer romances onscreen the story is not about the problems queer persons have to face and the film doesn't attempt at overt LGBTQ commentary. It is not a fleeting experimentation either. It is simply a romance between two people put together. If Marianne was a man their love would still be equally forbidden, equally hopeless, and equally emancipating for both. The seclusion of the island does not make heterosexual romances impossible, as has been proven by Sophie's pregnancy (a sub-plot that blends in so well with the plot that it can hardly be labelled as one). Never do the two lovers or the filmmakers hint at their sexuality being anything other than normal. Maybe a heterosexual romance would have been a bit more comprehensible to society in general, and Héloïse might have had to deal with a pregnancy of her own, but that's about where the differences end. The nature of the attraction, the growing interest and the gradual immersion of the two characters into one another does not depend on any factor that can be called uniquely "lesbian". (I have no clue what can be called uniquely lesbian save for the fact that it involves female same-sex attraction; but if we are to consider films then lesbianism is almost always accompanied by a disenchantment with men and struggles with societal stigma.)
Second, the brilliance of the scene where Héloïse agrees to pose cannot be understated. The nonplus in the eyes and the posture of the perfect Valerio Golino and her subsequent infantilizing of Héloïse clearly expresses the defeat she felt. The scene is a brilliant example of how supporting characters have their own worlds and should not be used merely as props to the main character's story.
Overall the film offers an experience that stays with you long after it has finished and you keep figuring out new things every time you think about it. It is heartbreaking how many points I had to edit out. Is this how film editors feel? Tough job! I will not go on to recommend watching Portrait Of A Lady On Fire because if you haven't watched it already then why are you here anyway?