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Not Just A Portrait Of A Lady On Fire…

A still from the film 'portrait of a lady on fire'

I write this feverishly, just hours after having seen the film Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The film won the Queer Palm and Best Screenplay awards at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. So when the film was going to be screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival, I grabbed the opportunity!

I am a self-confessed fan of the film’s director, Celine Sciamma. What has always struck me about her films has been her subtle, delicate and nuanced take on relationships and friendships. Her latest offering has been ruffling feathers, albeit in the correct direction, for her thought-provoking depiction of same-sex romance, and the female gaze. But in addition to the gloriously elegant love ballet between the two female protagonists, the film also celebrates female bonding and friendship.

When Marianne, a young painter commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Lady Heloise, arrives at her destination, she is greeted and welcomed by the maidservant Sophie. There’s an immediate bond between the two, as both are part of a ruse. Heloise has been steadfast in her refusal to get herself painted, so her mother presents Marianne to Heloise as a companion. The mother hopes that Marianne in the guise of a companion will secretly paint Heloise. However, the companions slowly become sexually and romantically attracted to each other. At the same time, the bond of friendship between the three deepens.With the matriarch (Heloise’s mother) of the family away for a few days, the three girls shed their socially assigned roles, and find in each other support, warmth, and mirth.

As the three read stories to each other and play cards, an unsaid and unspoken bond get established between them. So when Sophie reveals she’s pregnant, the other two rally around her to find a way to get her an abortion. No judgements are made, neither are any questions asked. The bond and understanding has germinated out of an innate understanding of a woman’s position in eighteenth century France. Several methods are tried, often eliciting a chuckle and confusion. The three girls finally resort to taking the help of a woman, who in her small dwelling with her children comes to the aid of girls like Sophie. Hauntingly, Sciamma decides to include the scene of the procedure, with Sophie crying noiselessly, yet surreally, she finds herself staring at the woman’s infant, seeking comfort.This scene is a coalescing of painting and filmmaking, and a haunting one.

What serves to forever cement the three girls’ bond is when after Sophie’s abortion, Heloise is unable to sleep and tells Marianne she must paint. With the night ablaze from the fireplace, Heloise re-enacts the procedure with Sophie, as Marianne paints away. It’s a beautiful and touching moment, forever cementing a shared instance of intimacy, loss, grief and pain between the girls.

It is never made clear in the film if Sophie ever learns about the true nature of Marianne’s and Heloise’s relationship. But there is a hint when Sophie announces to Marianne there is news, the matriarch of the family is returning! And we see the two preciously and precariously holding onto their last day together, in the knowledge that this is the end. When Marianne finally has to leave, Sophie looks at her, sad and dispirited, bids her farewell and gives her a tight hug.

Sciamma has always portrayed her characters with minimal words, resonating with her minimal style of filmmaking too. Her characters’ gestures, actions and gaze speak louder. Overt exposition of physical intimacy between the two protagonists has been done away with. Instead you see them pillow talk, and perhaps for me the most intimate and purest expression of love is when there’s a close up of the two kissing, their lips intermingling and slivers of their sputum meshing. It’s rare to see such depiction of love onscreen.

In the film there’s a scene wherein Heloise gazes at Marianne through a bonfire. As the fire rages on and licks of flames get higher and higher, the burning desire, tension and sexual chemistry between the two rises to a crescendo. Heloise gets so consumed that a part of her dress catches fire, but it is quickly put out by the other women present there. In the eighteenth century, such burning desires had to be put an end to, but Sciamma with this film has lit up those desires again, which are unlikely to die out…

Cover Image: Film Poster

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