The Elemental Composition of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”

Dir. Céline Sciamma; Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel
[4 out of 4 stars]

Orson Welles is quoted as once saying that “a film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.” I love this tidbit because, as I’ve written at length on this site before, I see the relationship between poetry and filmmaking as one of fundamental similarity. Poets and filmmakers, in their purest efforts, are both nobly attempting to replicate emotions through the composition of basic tenets – elements, if you will. 

Of course, a similar parallel could be drawn broadly from any art form to another. Yet, before you layer on the spiraling constructs of special effects, top of the line cameras, and tens of millions of dollars in budget limits, filmmaking begins as the capturing of the essential bits of light and sound that make up our reality. In such simple elegance, I see the strongest peer in poetry, for a poem is that sort of writing that reduces experience down to its most potent re-creation. 

I invoke Welles and this concept here because it was on my mind from the moment I started watching Céline Sciamma’s new film Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu, or Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020) as it is known stateside. Sciamma’s 18th-century story of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter commissioned to produce a portrait of the unwillingly betrothed Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who refuses to pose for said portrait, unfolds in a style that is at times impressionistic, and at others brutally realistic. However, no matter where it wanders, Sciamma’s filmmaking style revels in the purest elements of poetic filmmaking: light and sound. 

Héloïse lives on a secluded island in Brittany with her mother, who commissioned Marianne, and their maidservant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). When Marianne arrives on a rickety boat we are introduced to the unforgiving harshness of the bright sunlight, and the insistent yet unobtrusive sound of the ocean which returns time and again throughout the narrative. Yet, as Marianne treks up from the beach to the manor well up the hillside, the ocean and the sun retreat until they are replaced by her quiet footsteps and the velvet embrace of nightfall. When she reaches the front door the blues and blacks of night are perforated by the reds and yellows of firelight. The house is large and mostly empty, and so all its creaks and scratches reverberate throughout even if in the candlelight we can only see a small measure of its appearance.

From here on out, Sciamma employs this sonic landscape and textural light design to mirror and intensify the developing relationship between Marianne and Héloïse, which  is the centerpiece of the story. With the exception of one scene, there is not a moment of non-diegetic score or soundtrack that replaces the in-world noises and sound design, and so the women’s landscape also serves as our auditory guide through the story, the way a John Williams score does the same for a Steven Spielberg movie. The rhythmic ocean sounds underscore the women’s conversations as they walk along the shore, filling in the initial awkward gaps as they get to know one another, and then evolving into an expressionistic stand-in for the thumping heartbeats that no doubt rise as their passion washes over them. 

Yet, even before we enter into any of this, Sciamma primed us to understand that this movie will be a dance between the two women from the scene where they meet: that scene and the story that follows all about the obscuration of emotion and discovery of what truly lies beneath. The first time Marianne sees Héloïse, Héloïse stands at the end of a winding stairwell underneath a hood, back to Marianne, surrounded by shadows. Marianne is in the sunlight, but she must enter the darkness to pursue Héloïse who has rushed out into the misty outdoors, a state that softens and refracts the light onto them until they burst through to the seaside. In those handful of shots, Sciamma has used lighting to set up her central tension, and the marriage of sound and light only deepens as the story continues. 

The very conceit of the story, that Marianne must produce a portrait, brings our attention to the idea of composition. Marianne comments on her need for more time to work in the light because candlelight cannot quite replicate the ideal setup allowed by sunlight. Sciamma cuts between the brightly lit daytime interactions of the two women and the darkened solitary ones undertaken by Marianne as she paints, setting up a binary that is gradually dismantled as the women grow closer. Their walks and conversations slowly fill with more sounds, such as laughter, longer exchanges, and knowing sighs to such an extent that they outmatch the waves, wind, and creaky floorboards that once felt so overwhelmingly loud in the silence. 

To speak any more of the specific plot would be to rob you of the joy of seeing this story happen in real time, but I will touch on one last scene, that being the one that gives the movie its title. When Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie go to a gathering of other women on the island they end up out in the middle of the night around a roaring bonfire. The light bursts forth from the flames after a day of truly divine sexual tension between Marianne and Héloïse. All the gathered women are talking and slowly transition to singing. As they sing, Marianne listens and watches Héloïse, who stands on the other side of the bonfire. They lock eyes as the music soars, and Héloïse’s dress catches fire, but she calmly walks on as the two keep looking. There are no words, and we do not need them. Héloïse is alight and so is Marianne, and they are listening to the same sounds as they find each other in the darkness. It is, in a word, magnificent. 

I was not previously acquainted with any of Sciamma’s work, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire leaves little doubt in my mind that she is one of Welles’ “poets.” Her mastery of those elemental parts of filmmaking allow her movie to capture a simplicity that is captivating in the way it beckons the viewer in. You must lean forward to hear all the sounds, and there are moments when you have to squint to make out all the details in the shadows. This is sublime filmmaking because you actively take it in without having to struggle too much, just enough to feel the tension that Marianne and Héloïse feel as they circle one another. We are very lucky that Sciamma’s camera has given us a glimpse into the vision of such a talented poet.


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