Portrait of a Lady on Fire by Céline Sciamma is a beautiful film from beginning to end. Sciamma makes you feel everything at once through her delicate framing. From the opening scene, the audience is brought into the psyche of Marianne and her memories of Heloise.
Sciamma introduces the audience to Marianne, an artist and teacher, who is in the middle of instructing her students how to sketch a portrait. I absolutely loved every close up shot in this film because Sciamma captured the beauty in the eyes of the artist. The eyes were constantly searching for every detail in the subject’s face and it was powerful. Marianne then sees an old portrait of hers, out in the open and questions how it got there. Sciamma then tells us the simple, romantic tale of the lady in the portrait.
As the story travels back into the memory of Marianne, the tones in the frame become softer, warmer and almost dreamlike. The entire film felt like we were entering this alternate timeline of another place entirely, with these characters, as if it were a fragment that was repressed. The screenplay was lovely as well, Heloise’s mother, The Countess advised Marianne to sketch a portrait without Heloise knowing. By doing so, Marianne went on walks with her and attempted to draw from memory.
The tension begins to build as Sciamma captures stolen looks, intense eye contact, short breaths and subtle touches as their relationship flourishes. The pacing of their love affair was perfect and their intimacy was shown in the best possible way.
“Do all lovers feel like they are inventing something?” that entire scene set me ablaze. If you’ve been in love or even infatuated with anyone, you know that feeling, the burning the wells up inside you, whenever they’re near you. The overwhelming sensation of having them near you, looking at you or even speaking to you lights your entire body and that’s why the flame in the portrait, symbolically means all of this at once.
Along with this burning flame, comes heartbreak and pain because this type of raw, passionate, all consuming love, which is also forbidden, comes with a cost. Their love, so pure, beautiful, natural and free of restrictions, soon has reality come knocking at their doorstep.
The line that made me sob uncontrollably was “Don’t regret, remember.” How can such a beautiful experience be forgotten? That type of love is beautiful and the build up to the relationship is something to always cherish. The way Marianne and Heloise communicated their initial thoughts of each other and at what moments they fell for each other, was intimate and necessary.
The parallel to Eurydice and Orpheus had genius placement in the third act of the film. The concept of looking at someone for the last time can be hard to understand and Sciamma makes sure to vividly have the image of Heloise etched in Marianne’s mind, for the rest of her life.