The phrase “silence speaks volumes” has never been more true than this film. While I have very little to say about the script overall, I think the very isolated, sparse feeling that is happening with the dialogue and the relationship gives more feeling to this film overall.
Directed by Céline Sciamma, this film follows the relationship between painter Marianne and affluent Héloïse who is to be betrothed to “a Milanese gentlemen” of which we don’t know who (or perhaps it wasn’t conveyed very well to the audience). This betrothal came about because of Héloïse’s sister who was betrothed to the mystery man. She killed herself before the marriage occurred, and so Héloïse was forced to come back from the convent to fill her sister’s place. Marianne has been employed to paint a portrait of Héloïse, as did her mother before her.
Héloïse, however, doesn’t like this idea. Through some fine tuning and some passionate kisses, Marianne is able to paint her portrait, along with starting a profound relationship between the two. Of course, Héloïse has to marry the Milanese man, and Marianne is haunted by this idea. It ends with Marianne having left, selling her art at a gallery and at the opera, playing the song Marianne played for Héloïse at her home.
What I think is most valuable in this film is the acting. I can certainly say that this film has some incredible, heart racing scenes, twists and turns, and subjects I’d never thought possible in a period piece. Sciamma is very familiar with the topics portrayed in this movie, being that of coming of age, and specifically, the experimentation in love that is performed at these ages. This film is no exception, although usually these things don’t get discussed in a period piece film, especially something that is supposed to be set in the 18th century.
The acting complements these difficult subjects. Lesbian relationships are at work here and beautifully represented. This film grasps with the difficult reality of many LGBTQ+ people of this time, in that their relationship could never work, that they could never marry. However, the assumption here is that it is only on the social level, but at this time, there was an economic level to this as well, in that aristocratic society is what keeps towns going before the Industrial Revolution, so there has to be an heir. There are multiple degrees of separation at work.
But the work by both Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant are masterful. Haenel maintains the mannerisms of someone afforded to her class, the privilege to say no. We of course, see this as a form of fulfilling a grudge, in some respects, refusing a portrait because in some ways it is like a will reading to her, and in this way it feels good to refuse her mother, who has forced her into something she doesn’t want. She can show her disdain for something and not expect any consequences, which I think is what is so deceptive about this film.
When Marianne wanted to destroy the second finished portrait, Héloïse was the one we were supposed to sympathize with, because Marianne was selfish in wanting Héloïse all to herself, but we neglect to realize the terror that happens when Héloïse, a noble, strings along someone like Marianne, who actually loves her. I think this is what is so palpable about her. She is powerful and assertive without being masculine, something that may have been common in her era with the more palpable gender specific roles, but yet she has hubris.
Merlant also shows her colors here as a painter. Marianne has a very powerful sense of familiarity, of childish assumptions that her relationship with Héloïse will last forever. Merlant balances a good, convincing performance in a period piece but yet has a vulnerability that rings true to modern sensibilities, a woman with the ability to love another woman without having the emotional baggage of someone who is ashamed to be who they are. She is very much the poet and artist, as well, fulfilling her artistic and sexual fantasies in very obscure ways that seem to be emblematic of those who desire to find some sort of higher truth or supernatural beauty in the paintbrush and in the human body.
There are also very good performances by the other co-stars, especially Luàna Bajrami, who gives a convincing performance of a maid while also someone who is having an 18th century abortion (like I said, very progressive for a period piece). But I think there is something left unsaid that people neglect in this film, which I found to be even more of a show of this film’s mastery.
I think what is most impressive in this film is specifically with the lack of fifty million lines of dialogue we get a chance to take in the scenery to focus, like a painter, on our surroundings. The colors in the film are very powerful at night where, inside the house they live in, you feel a sense of familiarity and powerful emotion in the presence of oranges and yellows, the color of flames.
This is very evident in the scene where they go to the bonfire with all of the gathered women that sang. Marianne sees Hèloïse across the flames, she sees the object of her affection in the flames. Hèloïse’s dress legitimately catches on fire, like the powerful emotions they share between each other will ultimately keep them separated from each other, danger and pretense keeping them from being together. When in the house, it is cold and haunting, the colors are dark black, blue, purple, and even white as a spectral purity with Héloïse.
Not only that, the vistas here, pastoral France, are breathtaking. Each day, depending on the day they decided to shoot, gives a different tone to it. The cloudy day at the beach gives it a cold feel, and Marianne and Héloïse’s kiss on one of these cloudy days almost gives the emotion of being in cold water, of touching cold and clammy skin. It’s raw, hidden, passionate, and yet cold, distant, isolated. In the warm days, the beach is playful, like going to the Miami beaches. On windy days, it is foreboding, almost terrifying, like someone could fall off (and of course, we know who actually did, which makes it more grim).
All of this is made possible by the sparse dialogue, finding presence in the lack of presence. There isn’t even really a score that is present, it really is just the environment that we see, which is much like the idea of a painting. It makes sense that there wouldn’t be a beatbox blaring some sort of classical music next to a Renaissance painting, because what you are supposed to be appreciating is the painting itself and the story (or lack of) that it is telling.
Much of this film reads like Wuthering Heights, the large, sprawling countryside punctuated by occasional people on horseback, which reads much like the song that we see at the bonfire, the women all singing “they are flying” in French, which in some ways speaks to how when someone flies away, the smaller those who are watching seem to be.
There are some drawbacks, however, which is surprising because of how much I’ve already droned on about this film. While I think in some ways the sparse dialogue is good and in some ways invokes the reader to pay attention to what is happening visually, it does leave a bit too much to be desired. There are some parts that desperately need dialogue to punctuate some large expanses of silence, specifically in some parts like the conversations between Hèloïse, Marianne, and Sophie, the maid. When they eat together, they don’t say anything to each other. When they’re helping Sophie getting an abortion, they say very little. At the bonfire, no one is socializing.
Also, certain plot points aren’t really conveyed in the most clear way. I am thankful, being in the English program, that my ability to read through the lines is at least in some ways more attuned. Especially something as carefully crafted as this film, you can actually have something to dig into. But what is lacking for me here is the lack of description of the urgency or location with how nondescript everything is. No one knows the name of who Hèloïse is marrying. Their location isn’t even known, their relationship to the outside world and social standing is unknown. There’s so much which I feel can add an extra layer to the urgency of Hèloïse and Marianne’s relationship, and while I can appreciate the ability of the actresses to convey plot points by performance alone, it still reads a little lackluster.
Despite this, there is a very pertinent and powerful aura to this film, and I think it is worth watching. It wasn’t my top priority, but I think anyone can find something to enjoy about this film. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” will breathe new life in the artistic process of making period pieces.