Jane Eyre begins with a description of the titular character’s physical discomfort: “the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating . . . dreadful to me was the coming in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes…” This opening passage grounds Jane’s sense of inner life in the viscerally felt and uncomfortable border between her body and external reality. It is not incidental that Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire begins in almost identical fashion; we see Marianne (Noémie Merlant) on a small rowboat, holding herself awkwardly against the uneven tides, when the waves’ severity throws a box containing her painting canvases overboard. Without hesitation she jumps in to rescue them, followed by a close up of Marianne back on the boat, huddled, wet, shivering: as with Jane Eyre, a portrait of pain and perseverance.
Period pieces often revel in their own periodicity, measuring themselves in terms of an “authentic” relationship to dress, speech, and behavior. Though Portrait of Lady on Fire is set in the 18th century, it never for a moment feels like a period piece, but rather a close analogue for our contemporary period transposed outside time. Marianne is a portraitist who, as a woman, struggles to pave her own professional legacy in a profession reserved solely for men; Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), whose portrait Marianne is tasked with painting, is freshly returned from a convent to fulfill the conjugal commitment of her late sister, who threw herself off a cliff rather than accept an arranged marriage. Here are two young women faced with the task of persisting, even if external circumstance spells the grimness of their future. The connection to our contemporary moment feels clear.
The most remarkable and remarked upon aspect of Portrait is its lack of male characters. For the most part, men simply do not show up in Portrait, though this is hardly framed as a feminist triumph; it only highlights the perversity of a reality in which men may literally be absent, but every decision made by the women is circumscribed in relation to men. Queer theorist Eve Sedgwick gave this structural phenomenon a name in homosocial desire: the way in which women serve in heterosexual union as conduits to strengthen and legitimize bonds between men. Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), the handmaiden of Héloïse’s family, attempts to induce a miscarriage before she finally relents to a painful abortion. Whoever is the man involved in Sophie’s pregnancy, as is the case for whoever is Héloïse’s husband-to-be, is besides the point. Not actual men, but men as a structuring principle haunt the film’s gloomy, seaside scenes, as specters of foreclosed, female possibility.
Héloïse’s mother tells Marianne that she must paint Héloïse’s portrait in secret, as her daughter refuses to have her portrait taken. No wonder, because the marriage is contingent on the portrait’s acceptance by the husband. A finished portrait, a successful portrait, would effectively transfer Héloïse’s possession of herself to a man she does not know. Marianne’s task has a suspenseful, gothic quality; she must surveil Héloïse, steal glances, paint the portrait in secret. When Marianne finishes the portrait and shows her, Héloïse is upset—but not, as we are expected to think, because of Marianne’s betrayal of confidence. Héloïse is upset because the portrait is bad. It lacks truth. Marianne is defensive because she knows it is true. The portrait’s Héloïse has a yielding, false smile, as if consenting to what is asked before it is asked. Marianne smears over the face with a rag and promises to paint a better portrait. Héloïse’s mother’s subsequent anger is mitigated only by her surprise when Héloïse offers to sit for a second portrait; Marianne has six days to present another portrait to Héloïse’s mother when she returns to the estate
An interesting contradiction emerges with regards to the process of portraiture and its end result. Because Héloïse’s acceptance by her husband is contingent on the acceptance of the portrait, portraiture serves a strictly economic function; its mimetic aim is not free to pursue beauty or the essence of a person, but to effectuate the transfer of a sale. Portraiture must confine itself to the ready-made forms that would most please a man, in possession of a good fortune, in want of a wife.
Opposed to the portrait’s stark function, however, is the incredible, graceful beauty of the artistic process, if not the end result, of portraiture. Close-ups of paint brushing across canvas, of hands hesitating between this and that brushstroke, of furrowed concentration, of paint-smattered hands—Portrait elegantly dwells in the incipient particularities of artistic creation. The work might be mercenary, but there is an acute, felt joy in capturing specific expressions, and lingering in a decision to turn the brush this or that way. If there is no pleasure to be had in portraiture’s ultimate end, it only seems to heighten what pleasure that can be taken, which is in itself, the creative process—the very same process, no surprise, in which Héloïse and Marianne fall in love.
The camera moves through an entrancing sequence of close-ups across Héloïse’s hands, chest, Marianne’s face, brush, and canvas. The aural cues too are notable—the sound of brushstrokes, the rustle of Héloïse’s dress, their shared, tense silence of rapt concentration. The craft of portraiture becomes the frame through which the two women see and sympathize with each other. Portrait poses the aesthetic gaze as a mode of desiring that runs counter to a distorting, appropriating male gaze; the aesthetic gaze reciprocates, it wants to understand in order to create.
With the portrait’s completion comes an inevitable end, cruelly punctuated in a scene in which we see in close-up a courier, come to take the portrait, hammering nails into the wooden box enclosing the portrait, as if it were a coffin. As Marianne says earlier in the film, in painting the portrait she gives Héloïse to another—or, literally translated from the French, to an other. The notion that their relationship can live on, if not in reality, but in their shared imagination, feels like the most insignificant of consolations. But a scene directly prior to their separation structures how Portrait ultimately understands the relationship between desire and loss. Héloïse and Marianne lie on the bed facing each other, naked, a mirror strategically placed in front of Héloïse’s inner thighs, while Marianne sketches into the blank space of a book a hybrid portrait of her face on Héloïse’s body. If only their bodies could actually merge; as if what they desire, over marriage and children, is the realization of a single image, sketched in the blank space between the lines of a story already written, of a single, shared body, signifying total union. It is not enough to say that Portrait of a Lady on Fire is about queer desire, but rather about the queerness inherent in desire. The film returns again and again to this notion—to the heartbreaking but sublimely felt experience of desire as that which is suspended, but immortalized in possibility.