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By Chloe Lizotte
The very title of Portrait de la jeune fille en feu seeks to pin down the unpinnable: to fix a flame in place. Céline Sciamma’s 18th-century romance centres on the innate slipperiness of condensing someone’s presence into oil on canvas, a process in which the act of rendering becomes an intimate exchange between an artist’s interpretation and her subject’s knowability—and one which, in the case of Sciamma’s painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and her subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the daughter of a countess, sparks a growing affection. By telling her tale through Marianne’s flashback, Sciamma gives an otherwise conventional narrative device a pointed thematic charge: Marianne is not simply remembering events but trying to concretize them in her mind’s (painterly) eye, to fix the fleeting and ineffable currents of desire, the flow of gazes and gestures, as vividly composed tableaux.
Likening her lady to the mercurial matter of fire is very much of a piece with Sciamma’s three previous features, Naissance des pieuvres (2007), Tomboy (2011), and Bande de filles (2014), coming-of-age stories in which identity is explored experientially as it is in the process of forming. While never losing sight of the social surroundings (and restrictions) that condition or constrain her characters, Sciamma is more interested in actions than definitions; in what her women do rather than what they “are,” according to conventional classifications of sexual and gender fluidity. The openness that Sciamma maintains in her depictions of contemporary adolescence carries over into the period setting of Portrait. Tellingly, Sciamma removes Marianne and Héloïse from their social backdrop: spending a week together on an island off the coast of Brittany, where they are removed from the supervision of Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino), the women are able to let their relationship develop outside the strictures and stigmatization of that society.
At the same time, however, Sciamma is keenly aware of the ephemeral nature of this escape. The assignment that has brought Marianne and Héloïse together is a finite one: the necessity of producing a completed wedding portrait within a week already suggests the possibilities (and the limits) of their entanglement. Simultaneously, the director indicates the degree to which Marianne’s profession itself enforces the social order. Héloïse’s mother confides to Marianne the startling effect of seeing her own wedding portrait for the first time, hanging in her new husband’s home the moment she arrived—the image of the role that she was to assume, already waiting for her. By painting Héloïse, then, Marianne faces the challenge of inventing a new form: a portrait that, despite its public appearance and purpose, might also preserve the memory of a private love that defies such conventions.
Initially, Héloïse bucks against following in her mother’s footsteps. Still raw from the death of her older sister—whose apparent suicide seems linked to her feeling imprisoned within her own engagement—Héloïse has been called home from a convent to marry an Italian nobleman whom she has yet to meet. A disastrous earlier attempt to have Héloïse’s wedding portrait painted by a male artist, which culminated in Héloïse refusing to sit for him, drives her mother to subterfuge, engaging Marianne under the pretense that she will be Héloïse’s hired companion during her stay on the island. Going out with Héloïse for daily walks, Marianne then paints secretly by night, attempting to reconstruct her subject from stray details she’s memorized: the way Héloïse’s hands fall in her lap, how her brow furrows while she stares out to sea.
Even as she renders these precisely drawn postures on her canvas, however, Marianne cannot initially locate the dynamic centre that binds them together. Following Héloïse upstairs after their first outing, she struggles to study the contours of her ear, repeating in voiceover the rules she’s internalized from her studies (the ear “must be of a warm and transparent hue, except for the hole, which is always strong…”); then, Héloïse whirls around and arrests Marianne’s thoughts with her stare, intense and maddeningly opaque. Héloïse’s eyes pose a quandary for Marianne; they reveal only fleeting glints of her inner life, an essence that can’t simply be mimicked. Sciamma pushes this point through location-jumping cuts: the dramatic image of Héloïse walking amid the island’s dramatic landscapes, alongside cresting waves that evoke her roiling inner life, is suddenly juxtaposed with her arrested likeness on Marianne’s canvas in claustrophobic close-up, the flatness of her painted eyes reading almost as accusatory as if Marianne has already betrayed the trust she has yet to earn.
Marianne ultimately endeavours to let Héloïse’s affect guide her process, instead of hemming it in with academic technique—a tactic Sciamma strives to adopt as well by building the film collaboratively with her performers, balancing her meticulous compositions with long, unhurried takes that allow the energies of Merlant and Haenel (Sciamma’s real-life partner, who was a relative unknown when they first worked together on Naissance des pieuvres) to create the drama as Héloïse and Marianne size each other up through stolen glances. The women’s dynamic eventually mellows, as the artist’s cautious studiousness gives way to relaxed warmth, and her guarded subject’s live-wire mischief begins to penetrate her steely outer shell. Yet even as the heat between the two builds, the film starts to lose the momentum it had built through their surreptitious surveillance of each other. A recurring apparition of Héloïse in her wedding dress on the estate grounds (later revealed to be Marianne’s final glimpse of Héloïse) begins to haunt Marianne just before the two consummate their affair, a heavy-handed visual metaphor of the alternate “portrait” that will replace the one they are creating together. At the same time, in a gesture to their inevitable parting, Sciamma begins to constrain the length of Marianne and Héloïse’s scenes together, disrupting the slow simmer of their chemistry, the frisson of discovery becoming subsumed within the film’s fatalistic, past-tense narrative frame.
Although Enlightenment rationalism was the prevailing current of French thought and art during the period in which Sciamma’s tale is set, the film anticipates the arrival of Romanticism, with its immersion in the unruliness of the emotions, through some pointed visual cues: Héloïse is first introduced bundled in a cloak, cutting a Gothic silhouette on a misty morning, and is later framed looking out at the sea in a shot that echoes Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. It’s thus ironic that Sciamma, who so carefully and intelligently creates this interstitial era in order to mirror her thematic attempt to capture the energy of those charged, evanescent, interstitial spaces between one’s memory and one’s present, between artist and subject, between the interior worlds that lovers can share and those which they cannot end up falling victim to the more rationalist end of the historical spectrum with her ultimately restrictive, overthought visual strategies. Revealingly, the film’s most evocative scenes use music to tap into the non-verbal undertows between its characters. When Marianne loosens up while playing an excerpt from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on a harpsichord, Héloïse peers at her as though seeing her anew; later, a bonfire scene awash in choral music unites a group of women on the island in a duet-based round, centralizing the wordless rapport between each duo. The latter scene also offers Marianne one of her most vivid memories of Héloïse, who meets her gaze while oblivious to the flames licking at her dress.
In moments such as these, Portrait opens itself up to aspects of interactions that can’t simply be seen or stated—the dimension that Marianne has been toiling to depict all along in her art. In that spirit, the final scene of the film suggests the ideal portrait that Marianne, and Sciamma, have been pursuing all along: a two-minute shot of Héloïse reacting to a live orchestral performance of the Four Seasons. Overtaken by memories of Marianne playing the piece for her years earlier—and, in the present moment, unaware that Marianne is watching her from a different box seat—Héloïse shudders first with waves of tears, then flashes of intense joy, her responses intermingling in all of their irreducibility.