In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, director Céline Sciamma resists showing us the face of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) for as long as possible. She’s the daughter of a countess (Valeria Golina) in 18th century Brittany, sent home from the convent with an eye to securing a prosperous match. She will sit for a portrait, which will then be shipped off to her suitor in Milan as proof of her beauty. We first meet Héloïse through the eyes of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), the second artist invited to capture her likeness, after she refused to sit for the first. The request, then, is that Marianne poses as a walking companion, studying Héloïse in secret.
As they set off on their first promenade, Marianne is greeted only by the back of her subject’s head. Héloïse, the hood of her cloak up, storms onwards. The camera follows with interest, matching Marianne’s view (or lack of view). As Héloïse’s pace quickens, the hood flies back to reveal blonde curls – she’s running now, right towards the cliffs that line the property’s edge. And then, she stops and turns around. We finally see her, exposed and vulnerable. The two of them are perfect opposites: Héloïse’s gaze is piercing, the corners of her mouth turned down in a permanent scowl; Marianne’s eyes, meanwhile, are dark, wide, hungry.
With one look, we can already tell these women will fall for each other – even if they don’t know it themselves. There’s minimal dialogue, which is bold considering the cast consists only of a handful of players. But Haenel and Merlant carry the film with ease and elan, projecting pages of unwritten script in the pauses between words.
Sciamma’s gorgeous romantic film concerns itself almost entirely with the unseen powers of the gaze. Through quiet, contemplative scenes – with the camera often left to rest on a close-up – we’re invited to study these women, just as they’re studying each other. Their desire is read through the subtlest of hints: the way hands might briefly brush up against each other or a faint smile will crack across Héloïse’s stony face. Sciamma’s work so far has always been notable for its striking sense of modernity (2014’s Girlhood featured an unforgettable sequence of its main character dancing to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”), but here she proves she can draw equally from the world of classical romanticism, with all its tragic longing and suppressed passions.
But Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t only about the look between two women as lovers, but between two women in the position of artist and subject. As Héloïse points out, when Marianne is painting her, where else is she meant to look but back at her? It’s a concept conveniently missing from heterosexual representations of artist and muse, which are largely marked by an imbalance of power. “Equality is a pleasant feeling,” Marianne notes. Marianne gets her period and the household’s servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) goes through an abortion, both dealt with in the unfussed manner of women free to live unbothered by the outside interests and restrictions of men. In fact, men are only fleetingly glimpsed, there as a reminder that this must all soon end for Héloïse, destined is she for marital imprisonment.
But they gaze at each other still, taking in every inch of skin and every gesture. Real love may be fleeting, but as Portrait of a Lady on Fire explains, art and memory are immortal.