The lives of painters tend to be told with broad strokes. Famous artists are portrayed as tortured and romantic or else their work hangs over the story, weighing it down with a set of cultural expectations which are hard to shake off.
With Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma has crafted a romance which swaps cliche and sentimentality for poignant questions about the nature of image-making and the attempt to capture a memory. In the late eighteenth century, a young artist – Marianne (Noémie Merlant) – travels to a remote island in order to paint the portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel).
The portrait is necessary to win the approval of a Milanese nobleman ahead of a proposed marriage which Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino) is determined will go ahead. In rebellion against her fate, Héloïse refuses to be painted, frustrating the attempts of a previous male artist. Thus, Marianne is employed to capture Héloïse’s likeness by stealth: observing her during walks across the windswept coast and painting by candlelight in secret.
It’s easy to see why the Jury at Cannes fell in love with Sciamma’s writing, handing her the Best Screenplay award for its sharp, intelligent dialogue. There is no ponderous musing on the creative process, nor is there any idealisation of the painter as a divinely-inspired figure. Instead, the film shows Marianne and Héloïse negotiating the portrait in tandem, learning from one another as their relationship develops. Marianne is skilled but unpretentious, forced to accept a similarly unjust fate of being under-appreciated in a trade dominated by men.
In stark contrast to films such as Girl with a Pearl Earring, where the painter’s model is passive and pliant, Héloïse questions the assumptions which lie behind Marianne’s reproductions. Their friendship with the young maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) offers a well-rounded glimpse at the social context of the story’s setting. (Perhaps the only off-note comes during a bonfire sequence where a witchy choral performance is clearly a studio pre-record, jarringly at odds with its diegetic use in the film.)
This isn’t to downplay the cinematography of Claire Mathon – crucial in a film with painterly pre-occupations. The camera moves between intimate close-ups and carefully framed compositions, cycling from daylight to firelight and emphasising the limited timeframe of Marianne’s stay on the island. Silk dresses shine as brightly as if rendered in oil.
There are romantic films which contain art and painting in them, but this is not one. This is a film which uses painting and portraiture to comment on the nature of romantic entanglements and artistic substitutions. Its enigmatic lustre encourages you to take another look, like Marianne, to try and see what’s really in front of you.