Portrait of a Lady on Fire paints a sumptuous masterpiece of scorching zealous romance. Eurydice and Orpheus. Fateful love bounded by tragedy. Her solemn death inflicting immeasurable amounts of sorrowful melancholia upon Orpheus, harnessing melodious musicality to signify his eternal grief. Love overpowered. Orpheus confronts the God of the underworld, Hades, hypnotising all with his lyre. The God offered Eurydice’s soul under one condition. To not stare upon her spirit until they reach the light once more. Orpheus’ empyrean patience would be rewarded. Unable to hear her footsteps, Orpheus nervously persuaded himself that he was fooled by the Gods and begrudgingly rotates his visions unto her after losing his faith. Her ghostly form whisked back among the dead. Forever. Their love, however fleeting, blossoming from within. With only their physicality extinguished. A romance that was not meant to be.
The ancient legend corresponds to the artistic emancipation of Marianne, a young painter commissioned to produce a portrait of the equally youthful Héloïse whom is to be married off to a wealthy nobleman, with an illicit romantic affair igniting between their sumptuous female entities. Exoticism that expresses the forbidden humanity that was repressed within eighteenth century France whilst celebrating the female anatomy upon every soul-gazing stare. Marianne focussing on every precise characteristic that Héloïse elegantly discharges, painting the initial apathetic stance that shrouds her subject’s opulent lifestyle. Her hands positioned with insurmountable grace, her indomitable complexions angled to perfection. The more Marianne confidently paints, the further her unflappable emotions progress. Offering supplementary ardour. Each passing day, as Marianne acts as Héloïse’s walking companion after the apparent suicide of her sister, the two increasingly concatenate their infatuations. Each longing stare into each other’s eyes, further alluring than the last, beckoning the compassionate lust that overwhelms. Their breathing simultaneously growing stronger, beseeching the infatuating oxygen that shrouds their authentic corsets.
“When you’re observing me, who do you think I’m observing?”, asks an apprehensive Héloïse as she comes to terms with her true feelings. With only days left before Marianne’s contract ceases, the two flee to a desolate cave by the beach and subject themselves to a passionate kiss. A forbidden kiss that echoes throughout the cavern, with their hearts beating as one. “Your presence is made up of fleeting moments that may lack truth”, Marianne declares. Saddened by the eventual disappearance of their lustful endeavours. “Not everything is fleeting. Some feelings are deep”, Héloïse replies. Visions haunting Marianne of an ethereal version of her lover before dissipating into the darkness that engulfs her. A fleeting representation of Orpheus’ fateful love, metaphorically symbolised in the inflorescence of youthful lust. An ember growing into a respiring flame, as it singes Héloïse’s aquatic dress whilst bestowing an unflinching look upon Marianne. Get too close to the cinders, and one may burn their soul beyond repair. An option Marianne consumes as she “chooses the memory” of Héloïse whilst acknowledging her cataclysmic consequence.
Yet, much like with all fires, a beauty exudes from its ashes. Reborn into a rejuvenated benevolence. For the bond these women have fabricated can never be smothered, even if society prevents such romances from blossoming. Immortalising true feelings onto a canvas, with each stroke of oil paint surging with endearment. From the surreal titular masterpiece “Portrait de la jeune fills en feu” to a future portrait of Héloïse surreptitiously clinging onto a vivid memory. Art enshrines all with timelessness, serving as conduits for equality and vivacious memories. A simple rendition of Vivaldi’s Presto (“Summer” composition) on a dainty harpsichord embeds itself into the soul, nestling amongst the serotonin. To hear the same piece again, this time as an orchestration, an emotional weight anchors the body. Subconsciously, memories of old come flowing back. Art, in all its forms, subjugating the human psyche. Harnessing the ability to relate dexterous artistry with emotional control.
Sciamma’s historical drama is that representation. It subverts the artist-muse relationship, common in ancient legends such as the aforementioned tale that assimilates itself within Sciamma’s flourishing screenplay, by reversing the perspective onto Eurydice’s viewpoint. To see the subtle eroticism through the glistening eyes of the muse. To animate the urgency of female relationships, whether a mere bond or romantic interest, by excluding prolific male characters from the story entirely. Through sheer focus upon the female entirety, both mind and anatomy, Sciamma produces a tale of passion that radiates gravitas upon each line of dialogue, facial expression and inevitable conclusion. Marianne concedes to the realisation that their intimate solicitude can only exist in their memories, and it’s through art that these memories are imprisoned. A form of self-communication.
Sciamma, alongside Mathon’s exquisitely sumptuous cinematography that paints every frame of film as if they were individual masterpieces, decoratively directs the love affair bounded by the art that surrounds it. Each stroke of Marianne’s paint brush or fine line drawn from a stick of charcoal is intensively therapeutic and central to the romance. The exclusion of a traditional score, with only Vivaldi’s strings and women chanting echoing the extremities of repression, allow the burdensome breathing to infiltrate the audience.
Haenel capitalising on the intensity of arduous respiration whenever her character, Héloïse, interacts with Marianne on a physical level. Her eyes moistened as her soft lips touches Marianne’s. Merlant equaling Haenel’s ferocity by presenting fragility, especially when running towards her stoic lover begging for forgiveness. The crashing waves of the sea acting as a symbolic backdrop for their turbulent bond. Sophisticated one-take sequences of dialogue exchanges with both Merlant and Haenel, rarely blinking, staring into each other’s souls. Supplying incalculable amounts of chemistry. Yet, one scene had the ability to fully entrance, staring into the silenced void of the credits. Haenel’s multi-faceted emotionally explorative climactic scene, as a flood of feelings pour into her heart when listening to Vivaldi’s masterpiece. To confidently alter between sorrow, regret, happiness and sadness in the space of two minutes, was nothing short of perfection. Vivaldi’s staccato notes exemplifying the relentless austerity of their relationship, whilst the calmer strings providing solace. In just a one-take zoom-in, Sciamma concludes her female love affair by, once again, linking to art.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is intimidating. Not for its stupendously celebratory subject matter or personable symbolism. It’s intimidating because it is unequivocally perfect film-making. There is not a single frame out of place, nor a single word of dialogue. For years, one has persuaded others that the “perfect” film does not exist. Art cannot achieve perfection. Yet, Sciamma has somehow achieved the near impossible by delving deeper into the manifesto on the female gaze. Through the embellishment of queer cinema, the prosperity of female empowerment and contemporary astuteness of arthouse productions, she has painted a perfect masterpiece. Not only achieving the perfect score, but quite possibly the single greatest piece of cinema that has acquired zero flaws. Not one. It may just be the best film I’ve personally ever seen. Love is not scripted. It is an original work of art.