Thirty minutes before the scheduled screening of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” at the Rubenstein Arts Center, the theater was filled to capacity. More than a hundred people had shown up on Valentine’s Day evening to have their hearts ripped apart by Celine Schiamma’s critically lauded French-language romance. Unfortunately, limited seating only gave the privilege to 100 people — luckily, I was one of them.
Two-and-a-half hours later, I walked out of the Ruby speechless.
The film begins with silence. When the opening credits flash on the screen, there is no orchestral score, no Mozart requiem to tell us that this movie takes place in the late 18th century. In fact, the movie has no score at all — just a few moments of diegetic music, all the more beautiful for their ephemerality: a brief harpsichord tune, a haunting chant around a bonfire, a final sweeping orchestra. Otherwise, Schiamma’s minimalist style forces attention on every word and expression of her virtually all-female cast. (If there was a male character with lines, I don’t remember his face or anything he said.)
The film follows Marianne, a painter, as she arrives by boat on a remote, cliff-bounded island off the coast of Brittany. There, she meets the widowed countess who commissioned her. The countess explains Marianne’s job: She must paint a portrait of her daughter, Héloïse, but in secret. Héloïse’s fiancé, a wealthy Milanese man, has requested a portrait before he finalizes their marriage, but Héloïse refuses to sit for one. So Marianne must pretend to be her walking companion, and then, after their quiet saunters along beaches and cliffs, rush back to her own room to paint her by memory.
The story of an aristocratic woman restricted to married life is not new. Coincidentally, Henry James’s 1881 novel “Portrait of a Lady” (not on fire) explores similar themes of female confinement, as do many other Victorian novels and modern movies. But Schiamma’s film is elevated beyond the cliché in its examination of the artistic and romantic gaze — where they converge in fleeting moments and how they linger in memory. That this gaze is shared between two women makes it all the more revolutionary. The tradition of the masculine observer, of an unequal power dynamic in art and love, is flipped on its head.
On the pair’s first walk together, Marianne steals careful glances at Héloïse’s face, presumably in preparation for her portrait. But gradually, with each day’s walk, the glances gain a new quality — they last longer, they carry more weight, they radiate an unspoken tension. Eventually, it’s unclear who is truly the observer and who is the subject.
Meanwhile, the audience is begging for an end to this stalemate of looks, which reaches its climax across a raging bonfire. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, a group of bonnet-clad women sing a polyrhythmic Latin chant. Their voices crescendo as, from opposite sides of the fire, Marianne and Héloïse study each other. When the bottom of Héloïse’s dress catches fire, she looks down, then back at Marianne — unfazed. After a few moments, two women rush into the frame to tackle Héloïse and stomp out the flame, and the scene ends.
The world of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is not quite our own. Schiamma explores an unseen layer, ghostly and surreal; this imagery of witches and witchcraft is not exactly frightening, though. On this island, the women appear to share a love through mutual support and companionship that undergirds and strengthens the film’s primary romance.
Vox recently published an article hailing the film as “the perfect Valentine’s Day movie.” A Google search for “Valentine’s Day movies” brings up results like “The Notebook” or “Pride and Prejudice.” If you’re looking for something similar — a gushy romance that dries your eyes and leaves you warm inside — “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is not quite it.
Instead, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” deals a deep emotional blow. But it’s a blow that celebrates love in all its forms — love unspoken, love lost and love remembered. In brief glances and lovelorn sobs, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” finds a passion that transcends time and burns brighter with each day.
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