What are cinema greatest romances? An Affair to Remember? Casablanca? Moulin Rouge? The Notebook? Dirty Dancing? Titanic? Ghost? The Apartment? Romeo + Juliet? Breakfast at Tiffany’s? True Romance? Call Me By Your Name? Brief Encounter?
I think they might all have just been eclipsed.
I know that’s a bold claim but I think I can defend it. Most of those other films, with the possible exception of the last two, are about more than just two people falling for each other. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is really just a pure love story though, it doesn’t really have an angle beyond that. It has a definite context; it is set in the 1700’s and is about a young artist fulfilling a commission to paint the daughter of a family so that she can be married off, but this is all totally in service to the development of the central relationship. It isn’t just that these other aspects play into the narrative though; they simply aren’t able to stand separate to it. The period setting is what ensures that their love has no future from the start, what with the painter not being of the right social standing and also being a woman herself, and this defines their relationship. More than this though the circumstances of them coming together is intricately woven into the way they see each other, or more specifically they way they look at each other.
This film closely examine notions of the human gaze and the psychological concepts surrounding this. Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey wrote heavily on this in the 70s, calling out a male dominated film industry for its sexism in how it depicted women and implicating the viewer for a role in this along with the filmmakers. She was discussing the male gaze though and here it is most certainly a female gaze that is under the microscope. Crucially the gaze is still motivated by desire in this setting but it isn’t salacious or demeaning anymore. Director Céline Sciamma has managed to reclaim this form of looking from the letches and make it something beautiful and touching. Marianne, as an artist, needs to study Héloïse, her subject, and this motivates how she looks at her. Initially this is done surreptitiously as the young lady does not want to marry so refuses to sit for her portrait but it is never creepy. As Marianne looks deeply at the other woman and she sees her individuality, her intrinsic nature and her particular qualities, as the artist must, then she falls deeply for what she finds. This is not lust because there is nothing surface about her infatuation, she is gazing at the essence of another human being and finding it intoxicating. Héloïse in turn returns this when she does pose for the portrait and when she says the line ‘What do you think I am looking at while you’re looking at me?’ it is right up there with ‘You had me at hello’, ‘I love that you get cold when it’s 71 degrees out’ and ‘I love you, I know’. It’s intense for sure but it’s so incredibly romantic. The conceit of the portrait artist and the muse is not incidental to their love, it is at its very centre.
That line notwithstanding, very little of this is in the dialogue. Credit has to go to Sciamma and her two brilliant leads Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in particular for the way they communicate all of this without words. There is little else in the movie to worry about; no wars, no sinking ships, no Kellerman’s, and the developing relationship grabs you and holds you without distraction. This focus is rare in film or literature and is where it wins over Casablanca and Shakespeare.
The slow build, the subtle longing and the authenticity draws us in as an audience then as we look at them looking at, and into, each other. It really is all about that gaze and, as Mulvey suggested four and a half decades ago, the viewer is still very much a part of that. Crucially under Sciamma’s guidance the camera is more honest and less voyeuristic, reframing rather than redefining Mulvey’s ideas. It is no coincidence I am sure, that it took a female director to do this.
The Ripley Factor:
Even though it plays with notions examined in Mulvey’s work, thereby nodding to one of the most influential pieces of feminist film theory of the last century, this is not a movie that is demonstrably railing against misogyny. The protagonists enjoy their time outside of patriarchal rule but they are not trying to fight it. The end of the film does not depict downtrodden women though, disappointed yes but not undefiant. The end may not be what you’d hoped for with this couple but it is wonderful in its own way and their victories, however small, do register in double digits. (Once you’ve seen the film you’ll see what I mean.)
Whatever its stance Portrait of a Lady on Fire remains is a very female centred film. It features a world that is mostly devoid of men and is better for it. These are certainly strong women and, at the risk of this being a spoiler, this film that centres round a lesbian love affair has no sex scenes. This is rare even for the good ones like Carol and The Handmaiden. There is nudity but it is not exploitative so there is nothing that men might find themselves particularly interested in here beyond the magnificently powerful and achingly moving romance.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is just magnificent.