Women have been subjugated for years on end. Some have fought back while others silently accepted their fate as Nature’s destiny. In this constant struggle to meaningful survival, that we like to call feminism, we have lost a lot of stories which needed to be told but faded in oblivion. One such story is that of the female artists of the 18th century whose art was subjugated, and overlooked by the entire society while they kept on working under the shadows of the more popular male artists.
The speciality of Cèline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is that it sets out to tell a simple story of cherished love between two people, but it makes us realise the condition of the then France with heart-breaking finesse. The story begins with a commissioned portrait artist, Marianne (Nèomi Merlant) (considering the abundance of male artists at that time and the systemic oppression of the women painters, this itself felt like a gutsy move) braving through an enraged sea to reach an island of Brittany, where stood the mansion of the Countess who had called for her. The Countess is about to get her younger daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) married off to a nobleman from Milan, and this portrait is his pre wedding gift. Upon reaching the mansion, Marianne learns that she needs to draw Héloïse from fleeting moments of their encounter, as Héloïse has disagreed to pose for anyone in the past. Upon asking why, we get to know from her mother that she hasn’t approved of this marriage. However, who cares about that?
As the audience, we enter this mysterious mansion with Marianne, feeling as perturbed as she does. On the next morning when Marianne finally gets to meet Héloïse, she is hell bent on observing her too intently. As both of them move towards the sea while walking, Marianne makes a quick note about how her wrists and hand look, on her way back, we hear her thinking how she should start her portrait from the earlobes of Héloïse. Warmer tones of colour are needed for the interior of the ear, while the lobes look good with a lighter hue. It is all so technical for her. She is a professional. She is well versed with rules and conventions, and we know she can make a portrait of Héloïse. However, the question is, how truthful will it be?
As the days progress she finishes her portrait, only to hear Héloïse look at it and ask, whether Marianne has truly drawn her picture. Marianne insists that this is the best she could draw whilst adhering to the rules. That is when the narrative of the film changes, and we hear Héloïse explore something integral about painting. The portrait needs life and love more than conventions, and Marianne was unable to capture that. Marianne realises her mistake and rubs off the painting immediately to start making a more truthful one. Héloïse becomes a friend to her, they discuss music, about life and about love. Marianne shares her experiences to give Héloïse a taste of the kind of music she isn’t aware of. Using the piano, Marianne plays the Four Seasons by Vivaldi, and Héloïse is startled by that. Their love for each other blossoms into a partnership, a relationship of equals where tenderness governs everything.
Amidst all these changes, the portrait comes to life carrying more resemblance to Héloïse’s internal light coming out as streaks of fire through her recurring smiles. However, remember it is still the 18th century. Not only are women prohibited to draw freely, but also unable to express themselves through the art. In those glorious portraits, we find dignified women in their spectacular corsets, but not their fragile and tender existence. To capture truth in its entirety Marianne should draw Héloïse in the corner of her books, in small notepads. Their life events, their joys don’t get documented in canvases. Instead they get scribbled somewhere in rough papers.
As the days of Marianne’s stay comes to an end, she develops a strong romantic relationship with Héloïse, a woman who taught her art in a way even her famous painter father couldn’t. In the last brushstrokes of the painting, we see her calling Héloïse to complete it. Painting doesn’t remain a figment of the gaze of the painter anymore, it becomes a collaboration of the subject and the painter as well. That is how, two unknown women chose to claim their agency, repressing their heart’s desire, in one corner of France.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.