Early in the beautiful Céline Sciamma film Portrait of a Lady on Fire you notice the silences. They are as much a part of this wondrous work of art as the rough terrain, crashing waves, and gorgeous landscape. Set on a remote island off the coast of Brittany in 1760, the film begins as Marianne, a painter, arrives via a small ship tender after jumping into the sea to save the box holding the canvas for her work.
Marianne has been commissioned to do the wedding portrait of Héloïse, a young lady who has just left the convent and is to be married to a nobleman in Milan. Deposited on the rocky shore by the last man we see for a couple of hours, she finds her way to the mansion where Héloïse, a reluctant bride to be, lives with her mother and a young maid, Sophie. Marianne is told that she must paint Héloïse without her knowing, so they spend their days on long walks, with Marianne stealing glances at face and hands whenever possible. The silences have been there all along, but it is on those walks that the quiet between the conversation, the focus on gaze and view, along with the lack of a traditional musical soundtrack, becomes a key to the beauty of this film.
Told as a flashback, Portrait is a remarkable achievement on multiple levels. Hands shown in the cycle of paint applied and removed bring the viewer into Marianne’s worldview. The arresting cinematography captures the candlelit darkness of the mansion, where faces often are the only feature in the light, as well as the stark sun and rugged beauty of the coastline. We watch the love that grows between Marianne and Héloïse develop at a deliberate pace that somehow manages to convey both the urgency of the precious few days available to them when the mother goes to Italy and a romance outside time and space. The attraction of the lovers is sensual and real. There is a bond built between the two women of privilege and Sophie that is genuine and affecting. The movie is a triumph of love told from the woman’s viewpoint, yet the specter of the unwanted marriage to a man she’s never met is just one of several references to the stilting nature of patriarchy that is critical to understanding the exceptional storytelling that undergirds the film.
One of the most incredible musical moments I can recall seeing in any movie in recent history takes place just a little past the halfway point. Writing in IndieWire, Chris O’Falt describes the scene: “Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) have yet to acknowledge their growing desire when they are brought to an evening gathering of the women who live on the isolated island in Brittany. As the two soon-to-be-lovers exchange glances across the bonfire, a low, slow chant starts to rise as the rest of the women gather to sing.”
Here the song grows as does the obvious feeling between Marianne and Héloïse, the women of the island begin clapping in groups of twos, and they begin to repeat a lyric. O’Falt continues.
In an effort to get a song that had the beats per minute, polyphonic, and polyrhythmic qualities she needed, Sciamma decided to write the lyrics herself.
“I wrote the lyrics in Latin. They’re saying, ‘fugere non possum,’ which means ‘they come fly,’” said Sciamma. “It’s an adaptation of a sentence by [Friedrich] Nietzsche, who says basically, ‘The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.’”
You can hear the song halfway through the official trailer, beginning around the 1:00 mark.
The musical feast is central to a larger group of scenes after Héloïse’s mother has left the island. The remaining three women — in very utilitarian fashion — eat, drink wine, and debate Ovid’s version of the “Orpheus and Eurydice” myth. Orpheus, in looking backward on his way out of Hades, dooms Eurydice, his lover, to remain in the underworld. Héloïse suggests that Eurydice told Orpheus to turn back to look at her. Marianne has a different interpretation, suggesting that, “He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s. He chooses the memory of her.” Soon thereafter the bonfire lights not only Héloïse’s dress, but also the love between Marianne and Héloïse, and the passion soon follows. The “turning back” at the end of the myth, returns to full force late in the film.
This is a wonderful story of love and remembrance. The powerful ending features the movie’s only other musical connection, with an orchestral performance of Vivaldi that is another memory for Marianne and Héloïse.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a stunning movie, created by artists who bring craft and vision to their work. It is well worth your time and emotional investment. In French with subtitles.
More to come…