Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A Collokino Conversation hosted by Jim Wilson

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Directed by Céline Sciamma, 2019

Jim Wilson: Michael, thanks for doing this with me again. How have you been doing?

Michael Clawson: Thanks for having me back for another Collokino! I’m doing well, spending much of summer here in Seattle as I usually do… inside, watching movies, and wishing my apartment had air conditioning (that’s an aspect of theater-going that I’m missing more than ever). How are things with you?

Jim: Great, thanks. Enjoying another hot and dry Colorado summer, and watching more movies than should probably be allowed.

With the third edition of Collokino, I’m breaking my own loose rules and having you on to talk about a film that I chose, when it’s the guest who’s supposed to choose (so maybe I’ll put you in the host seat a little). Ever since watching it the first time back in March, I’ve been longing to write or talk about Céline Sciamma’s absolutely incredible film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but I’ve failed over and over again to put together a review that satisfies me. I notice that most reviews for it never get close to doing it justice, as if there’s something about the review format that neglects it, or can’t contain it. That’s why I thought it would be a good idea, or at least a pleasant challenge, to give it a look in a more casual, conversational format instead. Would you be so kind, fine sir, to give a brief synopsis of the film and your first impressions? This is your second watch of Portrait, is that right? Streaming, or have you picked up the disc?

Michael: Even if it is against Collokino guidelines, you didn’t have to twist my arm to get me on board for talking about this one. I saw Portrait towards the end of last year, really enjoyed it, and watched it again recently on Hulu. On both occasions, I was enraptured by Sciamma’s craft, the romance, and the relationship between artist and muse that the film explores. With that, a synopsis:

A gorgeous romantic drama set in 18th century France, the film begins in a classroom, where Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is teaching a small group of young women to paint. Mid-lesson, she stops. She’s noticed a painting she did some time ago sitting in the back of the room, apparently pulled out by a curious student. Composed mostly of dark greys and blues, it’s of a lone woman in a moonlit field, the base of her dress aflame. The sight of it floods Marianne with memories that form the remainder of the film. In flashback, Marianne arrives on the rocky shores of Brittany, where she’s been commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who’s returned home from a convent after her sister’s death. Héloïse is to be married to a Milanese suitor she’s never met, and in defiance of this unwanted future being thrust upon her, she has refused to pose for other portraitists. Marianne thus begins the portrait in secret, pretending she’s been hired simply as a companion to Héloïse, but stealing glances at her for later reference on their regular, often silent but charged walks along the shoreline. As the painting comes to life, so too does an attraction between Héloïse and Marianne, and who’s gazing at who evolves.

How would you characterize the development of Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship, in terms of either their desire for each other or their statuses as artist and muse? If that question points you in a direction you don’t want to go yet, maybe start by sharing what you responded to, or found compelling, in a more general sense.

Jim: And that’s exactly why I asked you to set it up, lol. You do that really well.

Sure, I’d love to talk about the development of the relationship between Héloïse and Marianne. Adèle Haenel, in an interview included on the Criterion BD (it’s a beautiful thing) talks about three stages in the evolution of the characters, which tracks with the stages in the evolution of their relationship. In the first, she describes the bodies as angular, the faces as masks, with no warmth between them. In the second phase, which she calls intermediary, cracks appear in the masks, there’s a little intimacy, and some warmth is starting to peek through. In the third phase, which she calls the hottest, the bodies are loose, voices are spontaneous, and emotions are strong. I would simplify that, and describe the three phases in the development of the relationship between Héloïse and Marianne as illusion-liberty-love. Marianne performs an illusion, which Héloïse at least senses, which keeps her closed and distant. When illusion is replaced with honesty, the film reaches its apex, right around the one-hour mark, with the liberating middle section, followed by the romantic final section. I’d love to cover all three of those phases, but would first emphasize a crucial point between the first and second phases, when the veil is first lifted from Marianne’s deceit.

Héloïse is looking at Marianne’s first painting of her, the one she does on the sly. It really is terrible, how Héloïse is depicted as an adult-sized little girl, all of her angles rounded off, which is a criminal thing to do to the visage of Adèle Haenel, whose angularity and larger-than-lifeness is what makes her so beautiful. When Marianne explains that the portrait is stylized to conform to certain conventions, Héloïse furrows her generous brow and asks “You mean there’s no life, no presence?” Marianne explains, “Your presence is made up of fleeting moments that may lack truth.” And there the conceptual bomb is dropped. Héloïse snaps back “Not everything is fleeting. Some feelings are deep.”

What Marianne is doing is advocating for an aesthetics of essence, the idea that all people can be reduced to some basic kernel of humanity, which can be captured in graphic representations of people. Without getting into the philosophical weeds of it, suffice it to say that it’s an idea which everything about the film then roundly rejects. Marianne has it exactly wrong. It’s the fleeting moments that tell the deepest truths, as the film, and she, learns to illustrate. What’s distinctive to any human subject, including deep feelings, is what makes that individual person utterly unique. The worldly Marianne, an unusually empowered woman for her time, is being schooled by the provincial Héloïse. Héloïse may be of aristocratic birth, but she’s a rough stone compared to Marianne’s polished rock. Héloïse commands the aesthetic core of Portrait. There’s a purity of heart with her, as cold and jagged as it may be, that has the power to reconfigure Marianne’s deeply rooted ideas about what is and isn’t acceptable.

So that’s a start to talking about the development of Héloïse’s and Marianne’s relationship. As to your question about artist and muse, I think again to what Haenel said on that very point, that there is no muse, that once the work of the painting truly commences, following the scene described above, it is an entirely collaborative effort. Héloïse and Marianne work together, side by side, to create the portrait, which is one of the film’s loudest political messages, about how autonomous women are naturally collaborative.

Michael: Oof, yeah, the first painting is not a satisfying one. Héloïse appears docile, doll-like, and the look of contentment on her face contradicts the intensity and anger we’ve seen behind the real Héloïse’s eyes up to that point. We’ve watched Marianne steal look after look at Héloïse, only for her to disregard the severity she’s witnessed in Héloïse, and instead appeal to what convention tells her a husband expects to see. “I put it the way it is”, Héloïse says earlier in reference to how she describes her impending marriage to a stranger. The first painting doesn’t depict Héloïse as she is, so it’s really no surprise when she looks at it and asks “Is that me?”

I like the word “illusion” to describe the initial phase of the relationship, because I think it speaks not only to Marianne’s deception and the wall it puts up between them, but also because it applies to what frustrates Héloïse about how other portraitists, and Marianne at first, render her with their art. The illusion is dismantled as their attraction to each other grows, because desiring someone compels you to really look at them. The more they know and understand each other, the better and more truthful the art they create together. I love both Merlant and Haenel, but I’m particularly knocked out by how Haenel embodies Héloïse’s softening over time.

Prior to them opening up to each other, I think Marianne, in an unconscious way at least, mistakenly conceives of herself and Héloïse as artist and muse, since that’s a relationship that implies a one-way gaze, and Marianne doesn’t realize Héloïse is looking back at her. Once Marianne realizes she too is being looked at, the idea of them as artist and muse falls away.

Want to tell me more about the three phases you’ve identified: illusion, liberty, and love?

Jim: Actually, that’s a good point, that in the first stage, Marianne is having some kind of an artistic epiphany, though she has no clue yet what it means, or how to express it. That’s what Héloïse’s contribution ultimately teaches her. But yes, at that early point, Marianne is seduced by the impression of Héloïse as her muse, though that is, like so much in the first phase, an illusion.

I love the middle, liberating segment of the relationship, and the film, because it is the freest space, and because it brings to the center Sophie, the housemaid. Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) isn’t given nearly enough attention by fans and critics. Without her, the film would fail. Her unwanted pregnancy leads Portrait to its most touching and funny moments. The three of them cooking, playing cards, reading and discussing Ovid, attempting various folk methods of abortion, attending a festival, and finally completing the abortion, are the truly most beautiful and lasting moments of the film, acute episodes of freedom and self-discovery.

After the abortion, while Sophie is still weak and recovering, Héloïse has the idea of commemorating the tableau of the abortion, which we’ve just witnessed, into a painting, and assembles Sophie, Marianne, and the props to make it happen, thereby recording an event always erased or avoided from much of documented history. Recall that during the actual abortion, Marianne looks away, cringing, until Héloïse insists “look!” Héloïse is profoundly moved by everything she experiences, though her cynical and embittered perspective tempers her passions. Liberated by those same experiences, she begins to express herself, to assume what agency she can, with the inspiration Marianne and Sophie award her (Héloïse’s muses). Héloïse’s anger fuels so much of her own awakening, which in turn inspires and instructs Marianne (Marianne’s muse). It’s my vote for the film’s most poignant moment, the triumph of sisterhood, as it were, under such difficult circumstances.

I feel like I’ve dominated too much of the subject space here, Michael. Tell me about what matters to you about Portrait; specifically, generally, what is this film for you?

Michael: I’m with you, Portrait was one of the most discussed movies of 2019 (rightly so), but Sophie and the abortion sub-plot seem to have more often than not gone unremarked on, so I’m glad you bring it up. I love Bajrami’s impassiveness, and how despite Sophie being a particularly vulnerable character, Sciamma resists the temptation to turn her into an object of our pity.

All ideas aside, though I’ll turn back to those shortly, the movie wouldn’t matter anywhere as much to me as it does were it not for its ravishing form. I love the rugged coastal setting and the pronounced sound of the crashing waves, the contrasting crimson red and emerald green dresses, the POV shots of Marianne’s canvas as she’s painting. One of my favorite details is how Sciamma brings her camera around corners: there’s the shot where the camera drifts down the stairs and turns to show us Héloïse for the first time, though she’s cloaked and facing away, and there’s a smooth curve the camera follows around a rock wall on the beach when Marianne follows Héloïse into an alcove for their first kiss. Claire Mathon’s cinematography is a huge factor in the film’s success for me.

Another aspect I love but that has already been discussed to no end is the absence of men from nearly the whole movie. It’s great! Cinema has given us more than enough stories about gay couples confronted in obvious ways by intolerant men. Portrait implicitly recognizes the transgression in Héloïse and Marianne falling for each other, but instead of exploiting intolerance for cheap pathos, Sciamma confines it to the background, and instead foregrounds female solidarity, art, and love. It’s very refreshing.

One thing I haven’t seen talked about as much is how the film touches on the relationship between art and memory. It is, after all, framed as a relationship remembered from Marianne’s perspective. I was struck by the dialogue that comes towards the end, when Marianne sketches a small drawing of Héloïse to keep for herself, and then sketches herself in Héloïse’s book. “You can reproduce that image to infinity,” Héloïse says. “After a while, you’ll see her when you think of me.” Altogether, I hear the movie saying that if visual memories can fade and be replaced by the images we create, the pursuit of truth rather than adherence to established artistic norms is only that much more essential.

I’d be curious to hear your take on how the Orpheus and Eurydice myth fits into the narrative, but take us any direction you’d like from here.

Jim: Full agreement on all those points. On the subject of art and memory, Sciamma said it herself, “Art consoles us from lost love.” As you point out, the film is Marianne’s memory of the time spent with Héloïse, a memory sparked by the painting her student uncovers at the beginning, which you describe, a memory that relieves her of her initial sadness. The keepsake paintings Marianne makes for each, the painting of Héloïse that Marianne sees in the gallery, all serve to soften the grief of their lost love. And maybe most powerful of all instances of art consoling the memory of lost love, is the long take of Marianne watching Héloïse react to the Vivaldi number in the end, a piece Marianne introduced her to during their time together. It’s a really stunning bit of performance from Haenel, as she passes through several emotional states, ultimately smiling through her tears at the memory of that magical time in Brittany with Marianne. It gets to me just thinking about it. I think it’s arguably the most important emotional take-away from the film, the imperative of art as a means to capture the permanence of love in the hearts of those who struggle to find comfort when it’s lost. Knowing that Sciamma and Haenel themselves experienced something similar together only makes it all the more compelling a point.

In an interview with Céline Sciamma included on the Criterion disc, she speaks at length about the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Evidently, she included it in the script at the very end of the writing process, because she wanted something for the three women to talk about during that crucial liberating middle section. Since it’s a myth often discussed in feminist circles, as it may suggest the lethality of the male gaze, she went with it, and ultimately found that it fit perfectly with the other themes of the film, especially the centrality of looking, which is something I’d like to come back to. As Sciamma further explains, it serves also as something that can be discussed, debated and theorized about endlessly, with any perspective as valid as any other. Does Orpheus make the poet’s choice, or the lover’s choice, is it maybe Eurydice who commands him to turn around, is it about a loss of faith, is it inevitable, is it a way to share a final farewell? All of the options create a conceptual tension that is very useful to the texture of the film. Personally, I recognize it as a practical device that works in all of those ways, though I’m less taken by its importance to the real gravity of Portrait, which for me remains thoroughly grounded in the evolution of love through art, and the dynamics of the gaze, of looking and seeing.

I like your observations about the cinematography, which reminded me of another point Sciamma makes about why she chose to shot the film digitally – to provide the high-resolution richness that practically explodes off the screen. What other visual elements of the film did you enjoy, whether costumes, hair, the plain interior settings, or Sciamma’s really unique approach to period details?

Michael: As you talk about it, I feel the self-discipline I’ve practiced in waiting to make my next Criterion purchase is slowing breaking down…

I’m kind of relieved to hear you say that the inclusion of the myth isn’t of huge importance to you. It’s detail that’s ripe for discussion, which I like and have mulled over plenty, but I’m in the same boat. Other aspects of the film, most of which we’re already talking about, have more resonance for me.

The digital look is really interesting. I don’t think I would describe this movie as a particularly transportive period piece, but I don’t mean that pejoratively. Where other filmmakers might apply aesthetics that would either heighten our sense of the story as a memory or as one from over two centuries ago, maybe with the use of ellipses or a grainier look, the digital images have a real immediacy to them because of their clarity. Combine that with how pristine the wardrobes are and the stylishness of the relatively minimal production design, there’s just a feeling of the “now” in the film’s construction. Which I think really works for a film whose themes are as relevant as ever. Social and artistic convention of 18th century France informs what literally transpires, but I don’t think it’s a movie that’s strictly about the period it’s set in. The ideas about art and forbidden love transcend the time period.

If I may share one thing I didn’t care for: I could have done without the shots of Héloïse in her wedding dress, luminous in the castle’s dark halls. For me, they’re just a little on the nose in visualizing how the inevitability of Héloïse’s future keeps sneaking up and tormenting Marianne. Hopefully I didn’t just destroy my chances of being invited back for another Collokino.

That last shot really is stunning. It’s as if Héloïse relives the whole relationship in that short span of time, experiencing that rising wave of desire all over again. She’s so overwhelmed she’s nearly gasping for air. Both Merlant and Haenel really nail the breathing these women do when they’re around each other. The rise and fall of their chests always speaks to the charge between them.

Care to expand on the notion of “looking” that you brought up?

Jim: Surrender to the Criterion Temptation, dude. Trust me, the Criterion BD of this, the whole presentation, is more than worth it.

The apparitions of Héloïse in the halls in her wedding dress are just another expression of the Orpheus-Eurydice tale, though it’s not Hades who steals Héloïse from Marianne, but a Milanese nobleman (the difference being <cymbal crash>).  We’ve agreed it is not the film’s strongest suit, so your good standing in the Collokino rolls remains unblemished. For now.

To get to the stuff about looking, I’ll start with Sciamma’s mise-en-scene. During my last watch, I became fully aware of how much the film is built on a method of composition that Sciamma is deliberately crafting in every frame. I don’t think of Sciamma as a formalist, per se, but here she is literally and formally composing this film as a tableau, or a series of tableaux, in both the English language sense of a graphic arrangement, interlaced with the French meaning of, among other things, a portrait, or a painting. It is, of course, a film about an artist and the portrait she paints, a technique that Sciamma is mimicking in cinematic form. She assembles a fastidious arrangement of graphic signs and applies them to characters testing their own limits of self-determination, through signals, subterfuge, and sincerity.

Neither realism nor naturalism, nor any other method of representation, describes this. Realism is reserved more for the period details, where the stark minimalism of the physical spaces, the clothes, and the food, make convincing historical, and geographical sense. As for character representation, it mimics the montage quality of memory; the characters are usually still, or walking slowly (after one initial mad dash). Mostly what they do is look at each other, and talk to each other in straightforward declarative sentences, and ask basic questions they, and the viewer, want answered frankly. It’s almost like a series of still shots, gorgeous, sensual shots of hair and faces and eyes and hands and paintings, of sea, air, earth and fire, but static at first, sans any reaction. It’s an overwhelmingly powerful cycling of images and atmospheres that hangs more heavily over the film the more you watch it. It’s a visual film about looking, regarding, seeing, not talking, even less moving, just watching, observing. It’s something both Marianne and Héloïse say to each other often throughout the film, “regardez” or “regarde moi”. Look at me.

You said it yourself: “desiring someone compels you to really look at them”. In the critical middle section there’s another portraiture sitting, during which Marianne describes to Héloïse some of her telling gestures, clearly pleased, if not a little smug, with her powers of insight. In turn, Héloïse commands Marianne to come to her side and asks her what Marianne thinks Héloïse sees when Marianne is studying her. Marianne’s smugness evaporates. The scrutiny of looking is not one way, not restricted to a single perspective, but is dynamic, recurrent, and complementary. The subjects of their gazes – one another – change with this scrutiny, becoming fuller, more complete, and more worthy of love. By looking, they recreate each other and themselves, and draw each other more thoroughly into being. The triptych exchange of glances during one of their earliest walks, when Marianne and Héloïse steal glimpses of one another, is a breathtakingly remarkable encapsulation of the looking theme, and one of the coolest shots I’ve ever seen in any film. It’s such a critical and central theme, to me, that “regarde moi” could easily be the film’s subtitle. Portrait is all about examining its characters as they regard each other, and create art and love from what they see.

Though I could happily go on talking about this amazing film forever, I suspect we should start wrapping it up. Anything more you want to add, Michael?

Michael: I think those points are great ones to end on, they get at the heart of what I really like about this film. You mentioned that you think many reviews have failed to do this film justice. I’d never be so bold as to say, “We’ve done it!”, but I think we’ve covered a lot of ground using this format. And since it was a great pick, I think you’ve retained the right to break Collokino rules again in the future and choose films for discussion.

Jim: Well, I don’t know if we’ve done anything, but I do feel a little unburdened. This will forever be a special film for me, and one I’m always eager to talk about.

I do want to take the opportunity to promote the films of Céline Sciamma and Adèle Haenel. If you’re a fan of Portrait, do not miss Sciamma’s other three features, Water Lilies, Tomboy, and Girlhood. She is, I think, one of the most gifted directors working today. She’s a remarkably sharp storyteller with the heart of a philosopher. As for Haenel, there’s a pretty rich range of cool films she’s been in, starting with the just-mentioned Water Lilies, Sciamma’s debut feature, with a then-amateur Haenel, a coming-of-age masterstroke you won’t soon forget. Her performance in Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance earns her my eternal respect. Look out for her, too, in a great German film, alongside Lars Eidinger, called The Flowers of Yesterday. I’m also particular about In the Name of My Daughter, if only because she plays opposite Catherine Deneuve, to whom Haenel is uncannily similar in temperament, and because I love that cross-generational thing.

That’s all. Thanks for doing this, Michael. It was a blast.

Michael: I’ll second your promotion of Girlhood and House of Tolerance, and add the others you mention to my own watchlist. Thanks Jim!

Portrait of a Lady on Fire Trailer

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently available to rent and own digitally from most major providers and to stream on Hulu.

You can connect with Jim Wilson on Letterboxd, as well as review his entire list of Film Conversations.

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