First, there is being a woman. The softness of your skin, packed within a flowing dress, containing a body you can stretch and push, that’s filled with pains that are ignored, that’s taken, often, against your will. That’s capable of so much that so many won’t see. Or, rather, won’t see right.
Then, there is loving a woman. The softness of her skin, the curve of her ear, the way she touches her forehead or bites her lip. The way those lips press against your lips, forbidden, demanded. The understanding you have of her, of yourself, of her. The fact that you’ll still never know this person, because they are another, and yet they are you.
Finally, there is creation. The softness of skin come to life on canvas. The knowledge that you are good enough, but it is not. Adjusting, erasing, repainting, recapturing. Understanding what they want, feeling what you want, feeling her stare, needing to capture it forever, for a moment. The trying.
It is impossible to write a review or paint a portrait or make a film or exist in yourself or love another separate from the rest. Separate from men and patriarchy, from marriage and heterosexuality, from history and trauma. But with her fourth film, Céline Sciamma attempts this very feat, not by ignoring the impossibility, but by embracing it, by making it her subject.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not simply a work of the female gaze, it is not simply a work of lesbian cinema. It is pushing against the boundaries of the screen, frantically, lovingly, desperately, erotically, grasping grasping grasping for a new language, a new way of seeing.
The story is simple. Marianne is a painter, eager to separate herself from the work of her father, resenting the knowledge that if it weren’t for him she’d be married off somewhere. She is stubborn and committed, a true artist. Her eyes are always burning. Her appetite is ravenous.
Marianne is hired to paint the marriage portrait of Héloïse. A man has already failed to accomplish this task, Héloïse refusing to sit, refusing to show her face. She doesn’t want to be married, certainly not to a man in Milan who she’s never met. Certainly not to a man.
Héloïse’s mother informs Marianne that she must pretend to be a companion for walks. On these walks she can study Héloïse and that is how she’ll paint the portrait.
Marianne studies and she paints, falling in love as an act of creation. Every glance thrills her as an artist, overwhelms her as a potential lover, and pains her as a spy.
It would be an injustice to reveal any more details, to describe scenes or moments, to explain the exact way that everything feels just a little too short, always fleeting, until we settle. There are films that shouldn’t be spoiled because of plot twists, and there are films that shouldn’t be spoiled because the specificity of the images cannot be articulated apart from cinema.
I will not reduce actors Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel to adjectives. To say they are good or great or brilliant is insufficient. Sciamma’s attempt to capture without controlling allows for their performances to feel accomplished in a way that’s separate from the viewer. They are each other’s only audience.
Like so many men before her, Sciamma has created a tribute to a woman she once loved. (She and Haenel were together in real life for years.) Yet, she interrogates this gaze, always questioning her position as author, always questioning the subjectivity of her subject, or who her subject even is, or if she is even the one with the subject.
There is another element to the story, separate from the art, separate from the romance. There is a young maid who is innocent and knowing, who needs help, and affection. It’s as if Sciamma is insisting that the love between women is vast, sexual and platonic and both, romantic and familial and both. There can be a sisterhood, not for all women, but for those who choose it over the easy comforts of patriarchy. We can support each other, care for each other, love each other. We can sing. We can catch on fire. We can protect one another when the fire starts to consume.
“Do all lovers feel like they’ve invented something?” Héloïse asks Marianne between breaths.
The invention of lesbian cinema is a project as old as cinema itself. But every once in a while there is a work of art so specific, so complex, so new in its oldness and old in its newness, that it moves the craft, our craft, to another level of seeing.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one such work of art. Watch it, savor it, live within it. Live within yourself and another. Push beyond it. See, create, exist. Love.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens in select cinemas on December 6th.