Opening with a shot of a white screen, Portrait of a Lady on Fire begins with an empty canvas. A hand, trembling, hovers above it. All the promise of life lies on that blank page, ready to be filled. With her latest film, French filmmaker Céline Sciamma (Girlhood) tells the story of an eighteenth-century woman artist commissioned to secretly paint the portrait of another woman, destined but unwilling to be wed. Between the painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), her subject, love soon blossoms.
Sciamma’s camera pays homage to the labour of painting. We watch as shadows become people through minuscule strokes and painterly inflections. Through witnessing the creation of several portraits, we become aware of the various ways painting reflects the world and not always for the benefit of the subject; an acute awareness grows that the portrait, whether in painting or cinema, can often eclipse the real person. In the relationship between artist and subject — much like the film’s doomed love affair — apprehension can turn to obsession that turns to alienation.
Here, Sciamma explores the nature of the gaze and its ability to objectify and transform. Marianne, being a woman, is not neutral but an essential element in her own work. Her character — an amalgamation of the many real women artists erased from history, which Sciamma rediscovered in her research — becomes a means of exploring the gaze, by presenting the idea that it is individualized and gendered. The work of women artists was equal to their male peers but also, crucially, different in how it reflected on the world. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, more than being one of the greatest lesbian romances, is a beautiful film about artistic labor and the social contexts that uplift some artists above others.