“PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE” UNVEILS THE CRUELTY IN SUPPRESSING WOMEN
It’s best suited for those looking to really enjoy the art of soft narrative driven stories.
In many western countries we take coming out for granted. We take the freedom of walking within our own skin, as gay, straight, bi or trans as a given —as it should be, but it’s not a given for everyone. It’s why black trans women are still persecuted today, and why coming out is even considered a momentous event worthy of consideration. It’s touchy and it takes bravery, real gumption, to be yourself despite the challenges that may come with it. It’s why Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) and Marianne (Noémie Merlant) were doomed to be apart in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” They were ahead of their time.
The film is ambitious. It’s ambitious because it’s a very muted narrative about the pain of living a life in shadow. This shadow exists almost as a place to encompass all the pain and feelings that come with ineffectual longing, shame and anxiety from being chastised for wanting something other than a heterosexual normative life. Héloïse and Marianne are the focus of that pain and their union, although sweet, is also quite bitter because it gives them a peek into a freedom that they will never be able to fully realize.
In the film, screenwriter Céline Sciamma, uses the two women to echo the sentiment of the helplessness and suppression forced onto women today and in the 18th century. Héloïse and Marianne represent the different parts of women that patriarchy damages when forcing social scripts. We see this primarily with Héloïse when Marianne, a skilled painter, is commissioned to paint her for her impending wedding without her consent. Héloïse’s mother encourages Marianne to feign a friendship with her daughter so that she can clandestinely paint her and essentially pitch her to a suitor for marriage. She sees this as the only reasonable path for her daughter because she’s concerned about her future when she’s no longer in her care so, despite Héloïse’s protest, and deliberate actions to end her engagement to this unknown suitor, she must be painted. And so, Marianne has a heavy task: to finish painting a beautiful portrait of Héloïse, something she has never allowed.
To get close enough to actually paint Héloïse, Marianne presents herself as her walking companion to alleviate her loneliness since losing her sister. Though, in the process of getting close to her so that she can capture her image, Marianne begins to fall for Héloïse. In turn, Héloïse finds comfort and an awakening from Marianne’s gaze. Their close friendship slowly becomes romantic and intimate. With Marianne, Héloïse is able to express her feelings and dream about being ambitious and in Héloïse, Marianne finds a sense of belonging and vulnerability that feels unfamiliar to her. It’s sweet.
There are no men in this story except for the vague references to Héloïse’s father and her prospective husband. Still, the male presence is very apparent in the film. It’s clear that Héloïse’s mother loves her daughter dearly and wants her to find the happiness she couldn’t experience, but she is harshly aware of the realities of life for women who were not given the foundation to build a marketable skill. In the eyes of her mother, Héloïse has been too sheltered to be pragmatic enough to survive without the support of her parents or a man. She’s clearly intelligent and out spoken but besides her daring attitude, to her mother, she doesn’t seem to encompass any skill that would realistically enable her to gain financial independence or at least maintain her current lifestyle. That means that even though Héloïse is capable, she has to conform just like she did.
This hypocrisy and discord is at the center of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and also what causes heartache in the story. Even though Héloïse and Marianne love each other and could practically forge a life together (they would have to feign a friendship in public to do so), neither one of them want to take the necessary steps to accomplish this. Perhaps it’s because they see it as an unnecessary risk to their life and as an avoidable hardship. After all, how are they supposed to explain away the fact that they want to remain unmarried and together as companions? More, Héloïse doesn’t want to disappoint her mother and Marianne doesn’t want to be the reason that she loses her only real financial security, so their love is overwhelmed by the pressures of sensibility.
It’s sad really because it’s easy to imagine how difficult it was for women to be able to be with their lovers during that time. Marianne was already bold, being an unnamed painter in a time when women weren’t even allowed to paint nudes. Yet, the barriers to their love was insurmountable. It’s a pain that is very palpable.
Still, “Portrait of a Lady of Fire” isn’t for everyone. The story is slow to draw viewers into the journey and intimacy of their love story. It’s done in such a way that you can feel their love slowly progressing and also how insidiously the pain of their separation creeps on as it presumably does for the characters. Since the story is entirely told through the perspective of women, it’s very layered in revealing the histories about the hatred of women, an angle that many prefer to shy away from.
But Sciamma pressures her viewers to confront that idea head on. She contextualizes how a traditional marriage can feel suffocating to women and especially gay women. She even touches on how women uphold the shackles of the patriarchy through Héloïse’s mother and their maid. Every part of the film, is a consideration towards enlightening audiences to these individual and yet interconnected themes. The lighting and scenic images and toned down energy within the film help to illustrate the pain of the two lovers. For instance, the music and color palates of scenes are often monotone to mirror the feeling of sadness and the perspective of stagnation in their love story since they can only experience each other for a short time. Likewise, when they are happy, there is a sincere brightness to the film. It inspires a very emotional watching experience.
Frankly, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is best suited for those looking to really enjoy the art of soft narrative driven stories. The film is fantastic for those willing to look at the concept of coupling from the perspective of white women, particularly marginalized white lesbian women. It calls on those who are willing to ruminate on the discomfort of the pain we force upon women.