Portrait of a Lady on Fire

From the opening credits a parallel is being set up between the film we are watching and the act of painting. It is about the process of composition as much as it is about the process of falling in love. In the first scene, one of Marianne's students unearths a painting of hers which shares the title of the film. It's a work of art displayed against the artist's will by a proxy for us, the audience. The film is the painting. It's an example of the art that has been buried for expressing something hidden and forbidden, produced without the sanction of the arbiters of moral and aesthetic tastes.

The story starts off like a low-key thriller. Paintings in this society serve as adverts in the patriarchal marriage market, but the male painter couldn’t finish Héloïse's portrait as she refused to sit for him. Héloïse is determined not to be complicit in the creation of art that she has no control over in the same way as she is resisting her mother's attempts to place her in a marriage she has no say over. So her mother asks Marianne to pretend to be a companion, observe her and paint her portrait in secret. The portrait we see at the beginning of the film, which is allegorical rather than representative, cannot serve that purpose. So we know already that this relationship has been the foundation for a more genuine form of art as well as a more genuine kind of romance.

In the various paintings Marianne makes of Héloïse, we see that the latter is teaching the former to abandon the conventions and constraints of the time to arrive at a truer form of self-expression. Love and artistic breakthrough are intertwined. In the final painting in the film we see that Héloïse has managed to assert some control over its creation as well, smuggling in an erotically-charged message to Marianne in what is otherwise a celebration of family values. There is a secret history of art created by women excluded from the canon by their gender, and this film is a celebration of, as well as a participant in, that history.

Sciamma is constantly prodding at the inequities of the past. Héloïse's sister committed suicide, perhaps to avoid her fate of being married off to a man she doesn't know, but that means Héloïse must take her place. Marianne questions the freedom Héloïse found in the convent, but it had a library and music, and she felt she was treated as an equal. Men are almost literally peripheral to the film, appearing taciturn and stony-faced to transport Marianne to the island at the beginning (in a scene heavily redolent of The Piano) and take her away again at the end. There are no men at the fete, and the servant relies solely on the company of women to get an abortion. The father isn't mentioned but is probably the previous painter – a failure as well as a source of obstacles and problems. Héloïse's mother is complicit in the patriarchal system (for understandable reasons – there are always trade-offs in life). She must also be removed for the romance to blossom. The radical implication is that only in supportive women-only spaces are women allowed to love and create freely. A throwaway scene in which Héloïse chops up some giant phallic-looking mushrooms for the stewpot might be the film's final word on this.

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