Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020)

“Thou hast made the furies weep, Orpheus. This is unheard of.” So says Persephone in one of the best retellings of the mythological story of Orpheus and Eurydice, in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Special #1. “Thou hast made the furies cry, Orpheus. They will never forgive you for that.” The three leads of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (French: Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) read and discuss this myth near the middle of the film and take from it different interpretations. It’s a well-known myth: Eurydice, beloved wife of the poet/musician Orpheus, is bitten by a viper and dies; Orpheus’s musical mourning so moves the spirits of the earth, the Furies, and even Hades himself that Eurydice is allowed to return with Orpheus to the world of the living, so long as he does not turn around until he has emerged from the Underworld. At the last moment, Orpheus turns and sees his beloved for but a moment before her spirit is pulled back into the world below.

Let’s circle back around to that. Portrait relates the story of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter who has been hired to go to an isolated island off of the French coast in order to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). It’s the end of the eighteenth century, and Héloïse has returned to her home after spending some time in a convent; previously, the responsibility of marrying a wealthy man and ensuring her family’s continued financial status fell on Héloïse’s eldest sister, but with her death, that now falls to Héloïse herself. She has no interest in modeling for a portrait that is to be sent to a Milanese merchant to secure a proposal, and previously ran off the last painter by refusing to sit for him. As Héloïse’s countess mother (Valeria Golino) explains, Marianne is to keep the true purpose of her arrival secret and pose as a kind of lady-in-waiting/hired companion for Héloïse on her walks. She is assisted in this subterfuge by maidservant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who fills in the details about the history of the house and its inhabitants.

Héloïse and Marianne grow quite close, and we learn that Héloïse had loved the convent because there was music and books and art, and she wants nothing to do with the life of playing wife to a stranger and bearing him heirs. Marianne sympathizes, as she lives adjacent to the world of art and artists, with men as gatekeepers. Her father is likewise a painter, and although she will one day be able to live as a free agent by inheriting his business (and not be forced to marry for economic security), she is still forced to submit her paintings in his name in order for them to be displayed, and she is forbidden from painting male nudes. When asked why, she explains that the stated reason is for the sake or propriety, but that the truth is that the establishment wants to ensure that women are never able to break through into “real” art. This doesn’t stop Marianne, who paints the male form in secret. “It is tolerated,” she says — as long as no one knows. Eventually, when the Countess is away, Marianne and Héloïse help Sophie try to rid herself of an unwanted pregnancy, and the three grow close as a result, with Héloïse and Marianne eventually admitting their love for each other and submitting to their growing passion.

Upon hearing the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, Sophie proclaims it unfair to Eurydice, who was damned by the folly and insecurities of her husband and through no fault of her own. Another proffered interpretation is that Orpheus, ever the poet, found himself at a crossroads with the opportunity to live with and love his wife for the rest of their days or immortalize her and enshrine her in poetry forever, and chose the latter. Yet another interpretation is that Eurydice had all of the agency, and asked that her love turn to her one last time and resolved herself to the darkness of the Underworld voluntarily. It’s an effective demonstration of the power of story in general and mythology in particular: a single narrative, interpreted differently by three different women who are all bounded and informed by the horizons of their experience and expectation. Sophie, who has limited means of changing her social status and needs the assistance of others to get rid of her fetus lest the Countess turn her out, sees herself in Eurydice as the victim of circumstance. The artist in Marianne recognizes the artist in Orpheus and sympathizes with both his love and his potential for self destruction. Héloïse sees herself as Eurydice the defiant, who would rather live in a world of her choosing than follow a man, and as Eurydice the empowered, who would rather that the one she loves look upon her once and for all and see her as she is than live as a shadow of what she truly wishes to be.

This is a powerful film, haunting and beautiful. I wept openly at the film’s ending, and immediately told everyone I could that they must see it as soon as possible. When a friend first saw Call Me By Your Name, he messaged me to ask if I had seen it yet, and he said that it had left him “undone.” That descriptor stuck with me in the intervening years, and it finally applies to something for me in equal measure: I was undone by Portrait. It’s a story of a brief love, but one which inspects the brevity of love and the all-consuming power of obsession and delights in, rather than condemns, it. The genre of romance is one in which the “happy ending” of the story is one in which the happy couple overcome the odds against them and set off for a live together. In other words, romance as a genre is a lie. Falling in love is the easy part; people do it all the time, often with people who are no good for them. The reality of life is that getting together isn’t a finish line, it’s just a new starting position, and that the “race” entails work, compromise, understanding, and sacrifice. As much as Héloïse wishes that Marianne would ask her to do defy her destiny as a trophy bride for a foreign businessman, Marianne, with her greater knowledge of how the world works, knows that she can’t and won’t. For her, Héloïse is better enshrined, as she is in the title painting, even if she will never stop loving her. The world simply does not have room for them to live in it as themselves.

This is a sumptuous film, full of life and fire and pulsing waves. It is quiet, save for the murmur of voices and the omnipresent clack of boot against hollow wood floor, and the roaring of fires and music of the sea. Only three times do we hear music: when Marianne attempts to play Vivaldi’s Summer Presto for Héloïse, when a seaside group of women sing an acapella chorus, and at the end when Héloïse attends a symphonic performance of Vivaldi. Its music is purely of the soul and not the ear, but you can hear it in every moment.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Céline Sciamma Has Always Been On Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an intimidating movie to write about, because I find myself both endlessly impressed with its craft and somewhat baffled by its ecstatic critical reception. Portrait is a visually gorgeous but patiently observant film about a short-term queer romance in 18th Century France. Its gradual accumulation of small glances, electric touches, and guarded desire snowball to an avalanche of emotion in its final act that is so self-evidently magnificent that calling its merits & accolades into question feels like cinephilic blasphemy. Yet, it’s also an overwhelmingly quiet film in its earliest stirrings, soundtracked mostly by crackling fireplaces, hushed wave-crests, and charcoal scraping canvas. Without a guiding score to anchor my attention in its pensive build-up, I found my mind wandering outside the emotions of the conflict onscreen to instead consider the film’s significance in the mighty catalog of its director, Céline Sciamma. That strained attention span is admittedly more of an intellectual shortcoming on my part than any fault of the movie’s, but it did lead me to wonder: Why, exactly, is this the film from Sciamma that pro critics are deliriously gaga over, as opposed to her previous, equally stunning works? Basically, “Why y’all gagging so? She brings it to you every ball.”

The only other time I can recall stumbling over this exact internal conflict is with the films of New Queer Cinema poster boy Todd Haynes. While Haynes’s most idiosyncratic, structurally adventurous works like Velvet Goldmine & Wonderstruck tend to be flagged as uneven or “messy,” his traditionalist costume dramas like Carol & Far From Heaven are collectively exulted as his masterworks. I very much admire both of those films, if not only for their exquisite sense of visual craft and their detailed attention to quietly, bodily expressed desire under social policing. However, I would never guess that Todd Haynes in particular had made either film if his name wasn’t included in the credits, as they’ve been stripped of the idiosyncratic playfulness that distinguish his most personally identifiable works. Céline Sciamma’s personal stamp is similarly obscured in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, at least in terms of how her filmography has played out so far. Her masterful deployment of diegetic music and her fixation on themes of queer & gendered self-discovery certainly carry over here, but removing those touches from her usual modern settings to the more stately stage of a period drama somewhat dilutes what makes her distinct as a storyteller. Like with Haynes’s most critically lauded works, I’m not sure that she’d be the first director whose name I’d guess were attached to the film if it were obscured in the credits. That’s not even something I hold against Sciamma or the film itself, really; I’m happy to see the director emboldened to reach past her usual boundaries to explore new territory. I’m just a little skeptical of why this is the film that’s being singled out as the pinnacle of her catalog, as opposed the equally stunning, modernist teen dramas Water Lilies or Girlhood. It’s as if the film’s period setting & hushed tones are somehow automatically more Prestigious than films that feature Rihanna dance parties or trips to McDonalds. That’s bullshit.

It might just be that Portrait of a Lady on Fire leaves the strongest impression since it ends on its highest notes, entirely by design (whereas Girlhood somewhat unravels in its epilogue and Water Lilies & Tomboy both go gentle into that good night). In the film, a young painter is hired to secretly produce a portrait of a French heiress who is arranged to marry a noble Milanese stranger against her wishes. Posing as the subject’s hired companion, the artist closely studies her for hours as they socialize, memorizing her ever feature to later reproduce on canvas in private. The border between artistic study & romantic fixation gradually blurs as the two women’s companionship naturally evolves into an outright torrid affair. By the time they realize their growing love & sexual attraction for one another is mutual (or at least by the time they’re both brave enough to act on it) there’s a rapidly approaching expiration date on their time together, and so much lost time to make up for. Suddenly, the practiced restraint & quiet observations of the opening half of the film give way to a rush of overwhelming emotion as the two women cram the entire arc of a fulfilling romance into only a week’s time. Meanwhile, the guise of their artist-subject dynamic affords them a brief respite from the societal demands & economic exploitations of marriage & the world of men. They manage to carve out a perfectly functional femme community outside the restrictions of their typical daily lives. The tragedy of the film is just as much rooted in the impermanence of that femmetopia as it is in the inevitable dissolution of their tryst.

It’s exciting to watch the carefully planted seeds from the film’s quieter half bloom wildly in its explosively passionate conclusion – especially as its spooky Gothic literature & Greek myth allusions fully materialize in the narrative. Before that delayed payoff fully leaves its mark, however, I mostly found myself drawing comparisons between Portrait’s basic elements and similar triumphs in Sciamma’s earlier works. There’s a communal, witchy chanting scene around a beachside bonfire that directly recalls similar dance party tangents in each of Sciamma’s’ previous features, best exemplified by the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood. Similarly, the stoic, unreadable expression of actor Adèle Haenel as the titular portrait subject is true to the quietly observant figures of Sciamma’s’ previous work, including Haenel herself as a teenager in Water Lilies. Usually, Sciamma’s stories of queer and fluidly gendered self-discovery are staged among children on the verge of teenhood. Here, that theme is echoed in how Adele’s adult bride-to-be has been “sheltered” (read: imprisoned) from the world outside her home because of her gender, to the point where she’s been robbed of the adult development appropriate for her age. She knows no more of her body or her sexuality at the film’s start than the preteen children of Tomboy or Water Lilies, and part of her initial attraction to her painter/lover is their usefulness as a window to the world outside her enclave. This film is very much in active conversation with the rest of Sciamma’s portfolio, but something about its period setting & quiet restraint has earned it more emphatic attention from pro critics. I think that critical impulse is worth questioning even if the film itself is practically unimpeachable.

I want to live in a world where two teenage besties breaking up their BFF status at a McDonalds can be considered just as cinematically Important as an adult woman having her heart broken at an 18th Century orchestral concert. I recognize that some of that craving for modern settings & mood-establishing score is a shortcoming of my own attention span, but I do feel like Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s critical consensus as Sciamma’s masterwork is somewhat arbitrary. She’s been making excellent movies that hit the same emotional highs (earlier & more often in the case of Girlhood & Water Lilies) for over a decade now. They just happened to be couched in a tone & context that aren’t afforded the same breathless critical gushing. Better late the never, I suppose. Céline Sciamma has delivered yet another exceptional work of queer romance & self-discovery here, one that’s now dressed up in the stately finery of what we’ve agreed to consider Great Art.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #102 of The Swampflix Podcast: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020) & Céline Sciamma’s Back Catalog

Welcome to Episode #102 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, the entire podcast crew assembles to discuss a wide range of topics: new releases, Mardi Gras revelry, The Oscars, and an email submission from the mysterious Mr. Hot Dog Boy.  They also catch up on what they’ve been watching lately, with a particular focus on the works of Céline Sciamma and her latest feature, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020).

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-James Cohn, Hanna Räsänen, Britnee Lombas, and Brandon Ledet