“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a French film, written and directed by Celine Sciamma. This film is a beautiful art piece that celebrates women in a million different ways. 99% of the cast for this film were female, and any men who are in this movie are blurred, in the background and noticeably an intrusion. This film centers around a lesbian love affair as it deals with abortion, forced marriage and women as artists.
Set in the 18th century, in coastal France, we meet a young painter following in her fathers footsteps. She has come to a manor to paint the portrait of a lady who has just been forcibly removed from her convent life so that she can marry a man who has been chosen for her. Immediately we are met with patriarchy at its finest. Heloise has been enjoying her pious life until she is expected to fulfill her roles as a daughter after her sister commits suicide. Even Heloise’s mother is so deeply ingrained in the patriarchal construct that she sees nothing wrong with the situation and expects Heloise to believe it also. Her betrothed has never met nor seen her, therefore her mother commissions a portrait to be done of her to send to this stranger. Heloise resists and at the moment Marianne arrives, we learn that Heloise has already refused to pose for one painter therefore Marianne must paint her without her knowing.
Marianne is the daughter of a very famous painter – she is known only for her relation to him instead of being known for her incredible talent. During the 18th century it was not common for women to become artists. Women were expected to marry as soon as possible, start a family and become wives and mothers, upholding patriarchal expectations of what it meant to be female. The only reason Marianne was able to follow her passion, was because of her fathers fame and fortune – the family was rich enough that it was not necessary for Marianne to seek wealth and security from marriage. She is a unique exception for women at that time, and it is brought up between Heloise and Marianne many times, especially when Heloise is upset at not being able to choose her own future.
One of the most poignant moments of this film is when the character of the housemaid, Sophie, finds herself pregnant without any other option but to terminate the pregnancy. 18th Century society did not condone abortions – they were considered a sin and medical professionals did not perform them due to social and religious stigma. Sophie confides in Heloise and Marianne, and together they are able to find a woman who performs them in her house – not very sterile, not very safe – however, during these times it would have been impossible for Sophie to have a child and not lose her entire livelihood. This scene is raw, dark and emotional. It is difficult to watch, but Heloise is fascinated and forces Marianne to watch the procedure – she later instructs Marianne to paint the scene, using poor recovering Sophie as the model of herself. The act of reproducing this scene, as a form of art, really calls to light how women’s suffering has historically been swept under the rug and considered taboo. There are no images from history that tell this very real story – women were continuously forced to sacrifice themselves for their own survival. Turning that horrific experience into a piece of art acts as a catalyst for Sophie, and women in general, to claim this painful experience as their own – as a woman’s experience.
Heloise, Marianne and Sophie are left alone in the house for a week while Heloise’s mother visits a nearby city. During this time, the three women form a very close and unique friendship. There are some beautiful scenes where each of them seem to switch roles with each other.
Heloise, the aristocrat, is seen preparing a meal – cutting vegetables and handling a knife. This role is typically done by the house staff, yet Heloise has her sleeves rolled up and is enthusiastically consumed by her task. Marianne, the artist, sips wine and surveys the scene – looking over the other’s shoulders and observing. This role would typically be played by the aristocrat, yet Marianne looks poised and perfect as she holds her glass. Sophie, the housemaid, is sitting quietly at the table working on an embroidery – carefully stitching with a delicate needle, creating art. Customarily, the artist would be creating art, yet here we see Sophie, the hired help, sitting calmly and peacefully stitching away. This scene shows the importance of female friendship, and when all men are gone, when no one else is watching, the women become just that – women. No preconceived roles or expectations are present, each woman is doing what each of them wants to do without any pressures to conform or act a certain way. It is a beautiful display of female friendship, showcasing the undeniable bond that links all women together.
I could probably talk about this film forever and ever – it is truly a wonderful piece of art. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that if you see this film, make sure to have some tissues handy, especially near the end. It is a heartbreaking story that really champions the importance of female unity, friendship and understanding. Also – the story behind the muse and inspiration of this film could be made into a film itself….I’ll let you discover that one on your own.
Portrait de la jeune fille en feu. Director: Celine Sciamme. Pyramide Films, 2020. Film.