London Film Festival: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

I’ve never seen her smile.

Did you try to make her laugh?

Okay, I’m late to the party, and need to go back and view all of Céline Sciamma’s work before the end of the year. Yes?Image result for Portrait of a Lady on Fire

The first thing I would say about her exquisite film is that it is about the gaze, in all its forms.

The year is 1760. Marianne (played with confidence and wisdom by Noémie Merlant) has been hired to paint Héloïse (played with innocence by Adèle Haenel) in order for her to attract a husband. However, Héloïse is not looking forward to marriage at all and refuses to be painted. Therefore, Marianne needs to be discrete and watch her subject secretly.   

The fact that Héloïse’s portrait will attract a suitor made me think of today’s dating apps: the person who wishes to attract attention uploads a seductive portrait, and hopes to please the person on the other side. In this film however, Héloïse doesn’t have any control on her portrait, on the way she is viewed (as she doesn’t even know why her new companion is looking at her so intently), nor does she have any on her future existence.

What she does have, however, is the power of words, thoughts, memories and friendship. Many stories talk about what women have lacked in history: they were either married off or hoped a man would help them live a more exciting life. But what about the millions of resourceful women who created meaningful lives without the help of men, by creating powerful circles of female friendship? I would really put weight on the word power here, as the women in this film (the two leads are accompanied by the maid Sophie, played by Luàna Bajrami) fill their days with intention, respectful relationships (they use the formal “you” – vous – in French, which is a dynamic in itself), literature, games and music. Héloïse in particular adores music, and there is power in her owning her interest, and pursuing it.   

A second strong comment in this film is about art, and the place of women in art history. Héloïse asks Marianne whether she ever paints male nudes. No, she isn’t allowed. If she were, there would be a possibility that her pieces would be good, better than the male artists’. If more space had been given to female artists, more views of the world would have been shown and recognised. Space would then have been given to the possible analysis that Eurydice, Orpheus’s wife, did not feel she was a victim when she was sent back to the Underworld. The victim is in the eye of the beholder.

This is my highlight at LFF so far, a peaceful, beautifully shot open-hearted picture of friendship and love.



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