I take a look at this French period piece about a forbidden romance. SEE IT.
Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a female painter who has inherited her father’s studio. She is teaching a class when one of her students brings out a painting which she calls “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” causing her to think about the events that led to it.
Earlier in her life, Marianne had been commissioned to paint a portrait of a young woman named Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) before Heloise is married off to a Milanese noble. Marianne is told by Héloïse’s mother, the Countess (Valeria Golino), that Héloïse has refused to sit for previous portraits, so Marianne will pretend to walk with her in order to study her appearance and paint her. She accompanies Héloïse for a week, only to end up bonding with her. It is revealed that Héloïse was originally in a convent, but was set to be married to her sister’s fiance after her sister died. At the end of the week, Marianne shows Héloïse the painting, which she derides. Héloïse agrees to sit for a proper portrait while her mother is away. The only other person in the house is Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), the maid. During the ensuing days, Héloïse and Marianne grow closer, falling into a passionate affair, which threatens to consume them both.
I really loved this movie, to the point that I thought it would be a good idea to take notes while watching it. Unfortunately, my first note was simply “French just sounds classier,” so I believe that my mind may have fallen into disrepair from the amount of bad movies I watch on this blog. I blame all of you.
This turned out to be the second film that I have seen by director Céline Sciamma, because I didn’t remember that I had seen the film Water Lillies. That was Sciamma’s first feature film as a director and screenwriter as well as her previous collaboration with Adèle Haenel. Water Lillies similarly involved women coming to understand their sexual attraction to each other, but that film appears to have focused more on juvenile and youthful attraction, while this film focuses on a more adult relationship. It’s been a while since I watched it, but the filmmaking techniques seem to similarly have matured in the decade of work between them. I haven’t seen the rest of Sciamma’s work, but a quick read-through of her curriculum vitae behind the camera suggests that her most frequent themes involve making the viewer question the nature of masculine and feminine roles in film, focusing almost entirely on either female or non-binary protagonists and main characters.
A lot of this film’s strength comes from how well it manages to convey backstory without having to waste time with exposition. It was doing so well at the beginning that when the film spent an extra two or three scenes, albeit short ones, to explain the circumstances of how exactly Héloïse became engaged to the nobleman, I actually was a little disappointed. However, the rest of the film was so tight in its storytelling that I forgot about it. That same efficiency really starts to shine when the full scope of the movie becomes apparent. Even though the movie is only two hours long, each act of this film contains enough development that they would normally be the plots of independent films. When the first painting is complete, that might be the end of a story, but here it’s just the start of the real one.
There are a host of themes in this movie, but the biggest one is that of control. Control is naturally a big subject for feminist films, because… well, historically women haven’t had it. Setting this in the 1800s means that the characters in this film have even less than their modern counterparts. Marianne has more than most of her contemporaries by virtue of being in a profession that at least allows women to operate independently (though mostly only under her father’s name), while Héloïse, having been placed into a convent and then forcibly married without her consent, actually has less freedom. In the middle is Sophie, who is a servant, but is also revealed to have a secret private life. First, we see her try to assert her control over her own body, then we see that she is part of a group of women on the island that hold secret meetings. These women experience a kind of freedom in their collective bond. We see a single bonfire celebration with these women in which they chant repeatedly “Non Possum Fugere,” which means “I am not able to flee.” It’s an accurate sentiment, since they can’t possibly ever escape a society that condemns them, but it turns out that Sciamma meant to say “they come fly,” as a reference to Nietzsche and the idea that most people cannot bear the loneliness of true freedom. People hate the Ubermensch, so it is hard to deal with that. I’m not sure exactly what the point of this reference is. I think it means that perhaps the reason why these women have not sought freedom is because of the fear of independence. Or maybe I’m misremembering Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
The use of color and lighting in this film is phenomenal, as you would expect from a movie that is about creating an elaborate art piece. The first distinct thing I remember is the film getting washed out the first time that Marianne goes outside to follow Héloïse on a walk. It mimics the effect of the human eye going from darkness to bright light, and it makes Héloïse’s outfit appear to be more like a black convent outfit. Since we were told earlier that she only wears convent clothes, that’s to be expected. However, as the film adjusts, it’s revealed that the outfit is actually a patterned blue. It’s at roughly that moment that we see her face for the first time, and the effect is way more pronounced because it feels like we’re really experiencing it first-hand. That’s just one example of the use of colors, but the movie has many more.
Symbolism and allusion permeate almost everything in this film, from the outfits and settings to the position of the characters and even the position of hands in paintings. A big one that the film makes more explicit than others is the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but I would rather you watch the movie than have me explain it.
The performances. Dear God, the performances. For a film that only has four real character, each one of them has to carry a lot of their screentime, including Valeria Golino, who I mostly knew for her comedic work in Hot Shots! She gives a surprising depth to a character that could literally have just been a plot device. The chemistry between the leads is so fiery, you can honestly feel their passion coming through the screen.
Overall, I cannot tell you how much I loved this movie. I could write another three thousand words on this and still feel shallow. However, instead, I’ll turn it over to a more qualified voice.
THE FACELESS OLD WOMAN WHO LIVES ON MY COUCH
I know my perspective was requested because I’m a queer woman, but I also just wanted to take a second to say how visually beautiful this movie is. The colors. The use of light. The scenery, especially by the sea. Simultaneously, the film’s confinement to one (beautiful) setting for almost the whole movie makes it feel eerily relevant for quarantine.
While the countess is gone, the three remaining women cook, work, and play together. On the other hand of Héloïse being betrayed by her mother, we see Marianne, Héloïse, and the women of the nearby village all try to help Sophie abort her pregnancy. These scenes are harrowing to watch in many ways, but what’s remarkable is the complete lack of pushback on the decision – only support. I think this part of the movie also serves to set it apart from period pieces that feel like they’re only about rich people problems. After the abortion, Héloïse decides she wants Marianne to recreate the scene in painting. Which I suppose is meant to drive home this vision of abortion being represented from a woman’s perspective and not colored by the patriarchy, but still is somewhat uncomfortable as Sophie is roused from her convalescence and posed by the other two women. (Perhaps this is an intentional reminder that not all women have the same problems?) Nevertheless, at the end of the movie, the countess brings a man with her to transport the portrait, and (to paraphrase Andy Samberg) ruins the whole vibe of this space without men.
It’s strange sometimes to watch actually queer media when I feel like I’m immersed in fandoms that imagine queer relationships between canonically straight characters or real-life straight people. I was reading a piece about Taylor Swift’s recent album folklore that discussed how queer the album feels, even though it is by a straight artist. And the reason it does is the expression of longing. Longing feels queer because of all the roadblocks that queer lovers face, particularly societal expectations and fear that the other person doesn’t feel the same way and maybe you’re misinterpreting all the signals you think they’re sending. (And what the consequences might be if you make your feelings explicit.) So a movie about actual lesbian lovers, whose longing echoes through the corridors of the house and against the rocks by the sea? Peak sapphic.
But of course, Marianne and Héloïse’s love cannot be. As Angelica laments in Hamilton, “I’m a girl in a world in which my only job is to marry rich.” (And male, of course.) There isn’t even a father to force this marriage on Héloïse, only her mother who likes Milan and thinks Héloïse will also like Milan, I guess. Marianne knows this, and has ghostlike visions of Héloïse in her wedding dress. The first time this happens, she is climbing the stairs to Héloïse’s room after their first kiss, and I gasped. It was confusing at first, as this is not a ghost story. But she’s obviously still alive and the ghost is wearing a wedding dress, and I came to realize that this isn’t a ghost in the way of a vision of a person who disappeared in the past – it was a vision of a person disappearing in the future. And it’s such a familiar feeling, when you’re pursuing something that you know isn’t going to work out – you see exactly how it’s going to end, even as that thought fades to the back of your mind when you think about seeing that person again, right this second.
“I wasted time.” Marianne laments on their last night together.
“I wasted time too.” Héloïse assures her.
The movie doesn’t force a perspective on what is and isn’t a waste of time. We’re left with the impact of that time, forgotten until those moments when it comes sharply into focus.
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