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The two women hold each other close on the beach.
Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Photo: Neon

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an emotional sucker punch

Céline Sciamma’s latest film centers on two women falling in love in the 18th century

The final shot of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is overwhelming. It’s a culmination of the two hours that have preceded it, but it’s more than just the end of a movie. It’s an entire life cycle of a love affair, as expressed on the face of actress Adèle Haenel, heightening the emotional ups and downs we’ve just seen through how quickly and intensely they’re played out in that single shot. It’s incredible, and a testament to just how well-crafted Sciamma’s film is; it’s thrilling to rush through the trees, but the film’s magnitude doesn’t sink in until she pulls back to show the whole forest.

Set at the end of the 18th century, the film stars Haenel as Héloïse, a young woman betrothed to her late sister’s ex-fiancé. She is expected to sit for a portrait to send to her future husband before the wedding is set, but has refused. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired in a ploy to complete a painting without Héloïse’s knowledge; Héloïse’s mother tells Marianne to pose as a companion, and to paint her daughter’s portrait in secret.

Marianne’s mission requires her to observe Héloïse as closely as she can, committing her features and mannerisms to memory so exactly that she can reproduce them without a reference. That visual familiarity becomes an emotional one, too, as the women open up to each other during their time together. Sciamma has Marianne’s deception come to light early on; what makes the budding love between Marianne and Héloïse bittersweet isn’t that initial pretext, but the inevitability of their relationship’s end.

The hem of Héloïse’s (Haenel) dress catches on fire.
Héloïse (Haenel) on fire.
Photo: Neon

Though both women are free-spirited, their seeming autonomy has its limits, as the day of Héloïse’s marriage creeps ever closer. Their affair is only possible because Héloïse’s family estate sits on an island, separate from the rest of the world. Marianne and Héloïse are in a capsule, allowed to create art and fall in love with whom they please, if only for a moment. The question of whether the portrait will be finished isn’t the driving force of the film. By virtue of the time they’re living in, Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship is doomed, and both of them know it.

As they fall into a routine of daily walks around the property, Sciamma uses Marianne’s duty to observe Héloïse as a window for the audience to get to know the characters as well. Through Marianne, we see the slightest shifts in Héloïse’s demeanor and her every little gesture. But that observation isn’t one-sided; Héloïse is watching Marianne, too, and the two are often framed together, side by side, or moving out of each others’ silhouettes as if they were a single figure being split in two.

Both women have their backs turned as they stand upon the rocks.
Two figures by the water.
Photo: Neon

Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon make every frame of the film similarly beautiful, plunging scenes set at night into chiaroscuro — utter darkness, with occasional bright flickers of gold and amber — and allowing colors to pop during the day, from the fabric of Marianne and Héloïse’s clothes to the crash of the waves surrounding them. Every image could easily stand on its own, and they’re clearly meant as a representation of what Marianne and Héloïse see, rather than the projection of someone else’s desires.

There are no men upon the island, though the pressures of patriarchal society are inescapable, and Sciamma and Mathon restrict the male gaze to the purpose of Marianne’s painting. Once Héloïse’s mother leaves the island to give Marianne and Héloïse room to finish the portrait, they break down boundaries, dining and chatting with the housemaid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) as equals, rather than following the expected norms. They briefly live their lives as they please, including falling in love for nobody’s sake but their own.

As their relationship progresses, they keep coming back to the story of Orpheus, who lost his love Eurydice after disobeying a command to not look at her until they’d escaped the underworld together. Héloïse says she understands him. He chose a single moment of certainty in that glance back at his lover over an endless uncertainty, just as Héloïse and Marianne are choosing an affair they know must end. Sciamma hones in on that bittersweet heartache in the film’s last shot, pulling closer and closer in on Héloïse’s face as she remembers watching her Eurydice disappear.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is in theaters now.

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