NOTE: This article has spoilers.
As soon as the Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons stopped playing, I sank into my chair, with tears in my eyes, and knew I had seen it – the kind of film that you will be lucky enough to witness and allow into your life. It reminded me of the time I saw Arrival or Cleaners for the first time – the feeling of being swept away for a moment and taken into another quiet world, only to be returned as quietly two hours later.
Over 8 months ago, I saw Portrait of a Lady on Fire at the Powerplant Mall in Makati. When we entered, the cinema barely had an audience for the afternoon screening, and it remained so throughout. I was seated far away from my friends – a purposeful decision because I wanted the cinematic experience to my own. I walked in knowing nothing about the film, but I left the theater wanting to watch nothing else in the conceivable future. I wanted to stay with how it made me feel for the rest of my life. But, as with all films, the illusion lifts like a fog as the lights turn back on, and we are forced to scuttle out of the cinema in preparation for the next thing.
We watched two other movies later that day, but I couldn’t shake it off. I have been unable to speak at length to anyone about this film because it was in limited release here in the Philippines. But now that it is available on Hulu (and because it seems none of my friends will want to watch it in the conceivable future), maybe people would be encouraged to read something like this. To be completely honest with you, I have been putting this off because I am afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do justice to how much it has deeply affected me since. There has been much written about this, but I have decided to write about this anyway to make sense of my experience.
Quietly Reclaiming Unseen Narratives
This was the first film I watched from writer-director Céline Sciamma and, after this, I immediately decided to watch the rest of her filmography. As it turns out, her entire body of work is an ode to female narratives that often remain unseen; told within their specific, almost solitary bubbles. In her debut Water Lilies, she depicts the accompanying rise in desire and envy during adolescence through the tale of synchronized swimming. Her sophomore feature Tomboy, my favorite of the three, explores the formative (and stifling) nature of gender and the value of siblinghood to a child new to a neighborhood. Her third film, Girlhood, is a love letter to female companionship and solidarity in times of conflict and poverty, especially for Black girls growing up in France. To delve into these films would take another few thousand words, so I shall leave that for a different review. What must be said is that in each of these films, she loudly proclaims ‘You exist!’ to these women and Portrait is no different.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire tells the story of Marianne (stunningly portrayed by Noémie Merlant), an 18th-century painter, who is commissioned to secretly paint Heloise (embodied by the brilliant Adèle Haenel), an aristocrat who refuses to pose for her wedding portrait in anticipation of her marriage to an unknown Milanese man. What struck me the most was how quietly radical the film was as Céline treats each of these women as humans on-screen – with agency and clarity in their objectives, desires, and needs. In this isolated island in Brittany, we encounter the faces of womanhood that have been lost in (cinematic) history (or worse, ignored). Many reviews have already focused on how the film deconstructs the artist and the muse, and how the rise in desire between two lovers is captured on film. But what still amazes me is how the film illustrates friendship, camaraderie, and agency in a time of oppression, exemplified by the character of Sophie. We expect the maid (played by the underrated gem Luàna Bajrami) to know and be involved in the intimate details of the lover’s affair (as we’ve seen in countless other films). Yet we get to know that she is busy with her own set of problems and her own art – culminating in the film’s most radical image depicting her getting an abortion as she plays with a baby beside her.
This encapsulates the rebellion against the patriarchal presence that looms over them, but is never truly physically present – Sophie decides to get an abortion, Marianne defies social norms in her painting, and Heloise resists being a passive receiver of the fate handed down to her by her deceased sister. There are other images and details that reinforce this rebellion and this act of returning what is lost through the film such pockets in gowns or hues that ‘shouldn’t exist’ but do.
Art Turns the Personal into the Communal
Often we look for films that are mirrors of our realities, but cinema also exists as a reimagining of reality. This has never been truer than in this film: which has a ‘meta’ aspect from its inception. Céline creates her most creative work from her most personal story – as Portrait is written as a reconstitution of her relationship and eventual breakup with Adèle Haenel. In a sense, Céline creates the most loving farewell to Adèle Haenel by transforming her as the muse one last time while Céline is the painter, together in a final act of creation.
When I heard about this for the first time, I openly wept, once again, to Vivaldi. As I watched more and more interviews, it became clearer and clearer to me why the film was structured in this way and why it needed to be told. They had met on the set of Water Lilies, nearly 12 years ago, and have both bonded over the creation and critique of art in all its forms. Marianne and Heloise’s relationship mirrors this and the world of Portrait is created in a way that love is mediated by the presence, creation, and destruction of art. Much like Céline and Adèle, our two protagonists are separated by their worldly obligations but bound together by art. In the liminal space of art, they meet and keep on meeting. In both of the film’s endings, Marianne and Heloise reconnect once more through art: Marianne ‘sees’ Heloise as a painting in an art gallery, while Heloise ‘sees’ Marianne as she listens to an orchestra play Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.
In the scene leading up to the first ending, Heloise commands Marianne to turn around. We know from each of the previous scenes that she has already memorized her face: So why turn? After much thought, I’ve come to realize that she turns around because she agrees to a pact: to make the poet’s choice, not the lover’s, together. The presence of art makes the personal experience exist in the collective, and this allows it to live on in memory and history. Art has never been decorative and its muses have never been idle. It is the secret language spoken by lovers, but seen by the world: from which we either derive new meaning or reinforce its previous meaning. It reveals something about the personal and the political in its examination of the perspective, and is a form of communication with the world around us and back – a dialogue across space and time.
Because it is now shared to the world, we are able to participate in this love and in heartbreak too as it is now ours too. This parallels Orpheus’ own struggles to keep Eurydice alive in the personal and collective memory as she was in the Underworld. With each listen to Vivaldi, we are now reminded of this collective heartbreak. In writing this essay, I retell their story once again and it allows their love to live a little longer than it might have. Though the film also mocks Orpheus for turning (in the same way that Céline is likely hitting her head over this decision), we see why they turn. In their decision to lose each other, we gain something together. But what?
Love is a Promise of Emancipation Continued
Cinema has often been unkind to queer lovers. Let’s face it, if you’re an actor playing an LGBT character, you’d be lucky if you were alive by the end. Even luckier if you were happy; one in a million if loved and healthy. The mainstream audience love seeing LGBT characters suffer almost as much as they love seeing women used for the character development of men. In most films, someone either dies from a disease, returns to a ‘loveless’ relationship, or ‘breaks up’ due to societal pressure and eventually leads a miserable life. In the end, only one of them is left and we are left to deal with the shambles; unable to comfort them through the black mirror that separates us. Why is it that lovers are treated as stepping stones rather than as human beings?
While we have seen a movement towards more positive endings in recent films, these are the exception. When these stories of love are told, they often feel as though they’re already ending just as they’re beginning. You cannot imagine what that feels like for the queer community to see relationships form like sugar turns into cotton candy, only to be dissolve just as quickly. I argue that Portrait presented something new among this sea of narratives: in its refusal to classify itself as a ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ ending, it has crafted a depiction of love as continued emancipation, even in its apparent dissolution. Céline proposed that Portrait of a Lady on Fire fights for a love that always has a future.
History has had it’s way with opposing female freedom since the beginning of time, and it is wonderful to see that this tale of emancipation fights against that. In fact, whenever men are brought into the frame, I often find myself recoiling at the image of this perfect society being disrupted. Desire manifests itself as an elemental force (water and fire) which reveals what holds them back and breathes life into them, but love is that which propels them forward and outward – past these boundaries to regain agency and take ownership of their cruel fates. It leaves me sometimes to wonder what it would be like if women felt safe enough in spaces to truly bask in their freedoms?
What we get to see is women whose liberation is bound with one another, who work together, and who ultimately free one another. We get to see their roles reversed (as the maid is served by the aristocrats) and their spaces temporarily rid of their class separations (as they all sleep in the same bedroom). Not for the development of any male storylines and not through the kind of suffering we are accustomed (even complicit) to seeing women go through. At first, we are led to think that these fiery flames have been snuffed out by circumstance. But we see that they are alive as embers within memory and art. In the act of retelling, recreation, and remembering, these embers live on and call for liberation of those who remain unseen. This is a message of hope: not just lesbian love stories, but all forms of queer love.