Two female members of the Competition jury have weighed in strongly about the gender debate at Cannes, which argues for the inclusion of more women directors in the various categories. Kelly Reichardt said, “I look forward that a time will come when we do not have to say ‘woman directors’, or ‘as a woman’…” Alice Rohrwacher said that people should look at the start of the process instead of complaining about the end point (i.e. the festivals). “It’s a bit like asking someone who survived a shipwreck why they’re still alive. Well, ask the person that built the boat. Ask schools, look behind the scenes. We need to talk about the beginning of the chain, the procedure.” At least one “woman director” this year has made the case for pure merit, gender be damned. Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the most astonishing films at the festival.
The story centres on a painter and her subject — Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) — and the film’s opening image is that of a hand outlining a drawing on a canvas. It’s a class. The hand belongs to a girl. The camera pulls back and we see that all the students are girls. The subject (and the teacher) is Marianne. This is a film with very few men (three in all), and these minor characters are all connected to the narrative through the world of art. One of them is a suitor, waiting for a painting of a woman (Héloïse) in order to decide whether to marry her or not. Another is a courier, the man who will carry this painting across. And finally, we meet the third man, at an exhibition. He’s an art dealer.
The visuals themselves look like they belong in an art exhibition. The colour is exquisite, and the framing is painstakingly deliberate. Portrait, which is set in Brittany, is paced like life in those times — the second half of the 18th century — and the lack of frantic movement contributes to the feeling of stillness, of actors being angled into poses and thrust into a frame. (This is not a “naturalistic” or, heaven forbid, a “realistic” film). Two scenes come to mind. The first has Marianne seated nude in front of a fireplace, drying herself while smoking a pipe. And the scene where a young woman is having an abortion. She lies on a bed, and there’s an infant beside her, someone else’s baby. Without a word being said, without a tear being shed, you feel like she’s being reminded of what she is losing.
Scratch the calm surface, and you get to a turbulent romance. We get hints of this turbulence right at the beginning, when Marianne is on a boat on a choppy sea, and her paintings tumble overboard, and she dives right in to rescue them. A bigger challenge awaits at her destination. She has been commissioned to paint Héloïse, who doesn’t want to be painted. Héloïse knows that this painting will be sent to that suitor, who may approve of her looks, and she doesn’t want this marriage. So Marianne pretends to be her companion, committing Héloïse’s looks to memory, and recalling it all when working on the painting in her room. At first, Héloïse cannot make out the reason for all these stares from Marianne, all these pointed looks. We’ve had many movies about male voyeurs and stalkers, but here’s one that flips the gender. Call it the female gaze. Also, the “lesbian” gaze.
The reason I put that word in quotes is that Portrait isn’t so much about a same-sex relationship — though Marianne and Héloïse do tumble into love, and into bed — as the first time we lose our heart to someone. It’s about that intensity, which may explain the title. Who is the lady on fire? Héloïse, whose gown actually catches fire (in a painting)? Or Marianne, who begins to feel so strongly about her subject that she torches an earlier artist’s attempt at painting Héloïse? (Where does she first plunge the flame? Into the canvas-Héloïse’s heart, of course.) An Ovid book plays a big part in the proceedings. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice becomes Portrait’s frame within the frame. After Eurydice’s death, Orpheus pleads with the Lord of the Underworld to be reunited with her, and his request is granted with a condition. On the way back, she will follow him. If he turns to look at her, though, she will be lost to him forever. So why does he turn? Could it be that what he wanted was actually the chance to say goodbye, after which she would reside, ageless, in his memories?
Portrait has the depth of feeling of this myth, but instead of staging hugely dramatic scenes, Sciamma leaves us to scan the faces of her superb leads. Even their murmurs feel like ballads. “Do all lovers feel like they are inventing something?” Héloïse asks Marianne. They kiss, but there’s no sex scene after. There’s nudity in the film, but no explicit sex — because there’s no need. Watch the opera-house scene where the camera stays fixed on Héloïse’s face during a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. She heard the outline of the piece, long ago, when Marianne played it to her, and now she’s not just responding to the live music but also reliving those memories, all the while seated as still as a painting. Her shining eyes. Her quickening breath. Her gently heaving breast. I’ll be surprised if there’s a more intimate moment in the movies this year.