“It takes two to be funny”, said the Countess with a chuckle, unveiling one of the myriad facets of dialectics that stitch ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ together.
Shot in a span of 38 days, the Céline Sciamma directorial went on to win the Queer Palm and Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival.
The narrative is set in late 18th century France, on a desolate island in Britany. In a stark reference to romantic artist Casper David Friedrich’s iconic artwork ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’, the film evokes the romanticist paradigm. The age marked by its rejection of tradition followed by the embracing of youthful modernity reflects its various contradictions in the film.
Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a going-to-be bride from an aristocratic family. Héloïse’s mother, the Countess (Valeria Golino) has planned her marriage with a certain esteemed gentleman from Milan, much to the reluctance of her daughter. In accord with traditions, a portrait of the bride is to be sent to the groom, before the bride herself is sent. Héloïse refuses to get her portrait drawn. Marianne has been assigned by the Countess, to observe the dissident Héloïse while pretending to be her accomplice, secretly painting the portrait without her knowledge.
As they walk by the rocky shores of the cyan coloured sea, Marianne gazes vehemently at her model whom she also admires sexually, trying to absorb every little detail possible. Her gaze is a strikingly unfamiliar sight: it is the female gaze (as opposed to the more rampant male gaze, which reflects the tendency to view the world from a male-dominant perspective).
In the referenced painting (‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’), there is a pertinent statement similar to the sensibility mentioned earlier. The ‘wanderer’ in this case is a woman. The statement is that even in the rebellious romantic age, the challenge to tradition had little relevance to women who were trammelled by it.
Silhouetted by slow camera movements down the candle-lit staircases of the house, the dull dining scenes follow those of the vast cerulean seashore. Contradictions draw out the dialectics that hold the film together.
The Countess shows a portrait of herself to Marianne, telling her that it was sent to this house right before she came in as a bride, leaving her home in Milan. She reminisces about the atmosphere in the Italian city and accounts her longing to go back there. When Héloïse is married to her suitor she goes to Milan and so does her mother, the Countess. For the Countess, this is a homecoming, while for Héloïse a nightmare.
Marianne’s presence in the house had brought happiness to the family. However, in only a few days, the family separates and the first step of the separation is led by Marianne’s painting. Her endearing presence eventually leads to the termination of the long-held relationship. The ways to the end of all phenomena lie in the inherent contradictions of phenomena themselves.
As mentioned in the first line, the Countess giggles and smiles because of Marianne’s amiability and humour. It certainly takes two people to be funny. Without an entity contemplating the humour, it does not exist. Thus, the listener of a joke is not a mere spectator, but the very reason for its existence. This is the philosophy found throughout the film.
A painter paints on a piece of canvas with colours and brushes. In her process of altering the piece of art, she herself is altered. Similarly, when the model of an artwork is observed by the watchful artist, the artist is being observed by the model. In other words, when we gaze at an abyss, the abyss gazes back at us. Contradictory opposites unite to take us forward.
In the process of surreptitiously observing Héloïse, Marianne begins to sympathise with her reluctance to marry the unknown Milanese gentleman. She asks the Countess to permit her to walk the shores alone. When she eventually finishes the portrait, Marianne fails to contain her guilt and asks permission from the Countess to confess to Héloïse the truth about her motif.
On hearing Marianne, the infuriated Héloïse asks her to show the painting. “Is this how you see me?”, she asks. The words remind us that art doesn’t exist in the abstract and is always a result of the subjective response that an artist has to her objective conditions. The film, while making profound use of paintings, doesn’t fail to remind us about its contextuality. The portrait doesn’t reflect Héloïse at all. Worse even, as Héloïse remarks, the portrait doesn’t reflect Marianne either.
In reality, Marianne was unwilling all the way to paint the portrait, as she had already begun to sympathise with Héloïse. The portrait is a product not of Marianne’s artistry, but of the compulsion to have it painted. The painting is alienated from the painter as well as the one being painted.
Disappointed after Héloïse’s reaction, Marianne dismissively smudges over the painting. She explains to the Countess that she will start again. This time, the painting will be hers. This time, Héloïse agrees to sit down and pose for it.
As we see in the end, the alienation continues. Further developments in Marianne’s relationship with Héloïse makes it impossible for her to bear the fact that this painting will tie Héloïse to somebody else. This time too, her painting, albeit satisfactory, stands in opposition to her innate interests and desire for Héloïse.
While the story transports us to the 18th century, the film belongs undoubtedly to the 21st. It is directed by a feminist filmmaker whose oeuvre shows immense interest in femininity and female sexuality. Accurate and arty the cinematography may be, the film is to be understood not as a historical artefact, but as an unnervingly modern work of art.
In a grim sequence in the film, the maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) undergoes an abortion. As director Sciamma recounted, this was her response to the French writer Annie Ernaux, who had spoken about her experience with abortion, and remarked how the great works of art will seldom depict such an experience.
The ensemble is made up entirely of women, barring the only appearance of men somewhere towards the end as extras. The presence of patriarchy becomes hauntological: we see its elements everywhere, without being shown any rigid obvious structure.
The film is a work of art, drawing ardently upon hundreds of years of great art. Thus, when the film deals with topics such as lesbianism, the realisation instantly strikes us that in the vast canon of art and literature, perhaps certain people and their desires have not found a place.
‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ does not come across as dismissive of the canon that it mocks; it does not suggest by any means to “cancel” those. It does not brand itself as a social commentary, unlike various others that derive profit or ‘woke points’ trying to play the saviour role, and very often stereotyping the communities which they claim to amplify.
The film poses questions. The exhibition scene towards the end, where Marianne’s paintings are on display under her father’s name, begs the question of what number of artworks might have been lost and their artists left unsung and uncredited, because socio-political conditions call for their obscurity. There is a tiny glimpse at page 28 of a book in a painting, that is a reference to the same page in Héloïse’s book where Marianne had drawn a picture of herself to remember her by. It begs the question of what number of little titbits of our artistic canon might as well be a tribute that a lesbian artist gave to her beloved.
While the answers to these questions blow in the wind, the film leaves us with a lot to fathom, and a lot to contemplate upon.
This Night Owl Original has been authored by Suryashekhar Biswas, a media undergrad who likes to read history and Nazim Hikmet poems.