'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' (2019): Crafting Memory Through Witnessing

There is the experience of witnessing a film for the first time, and there’s the experience of truly processing when you watch it a second time. Then, there’s the writing about the experience, the details of the full body sob, the reaction to realizing what went unnoticed during the first consumption.

On February 13th, Portrait of a Lady on Fire screened at The Music Box and was followed by a Q&A with director Céline Sciamma. As she sat in one of the “most beautiful theaters” she’s ever seen, she told Chicago that this is a film for us. When asked about the ending of the film, a shot entirely fixated on one of the main characters, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), experiencing an orchestra performing Vivaldi’s “Summer”, the piece of music introduced to her by the woman that held her heart, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), she spoke about what an end of a film really means. To her, in her works, end doesn’t mean the story is finite. It means the film is saying goodbye to us and we are saying goodbye to it, a farewell to the piece of story that we were part of.

She explains, “It’s about you being in this theater seat and her being in this theater seat…and her listening to art and watching art, and you being in the same position. It’s basically room for yourself and your own love story and your own love story with cinema.” Sciamma reminds us that we attended a screening of her film, of her artistry in action. And this is me reminding you that I am creating something in response to creation: purging all the heart racing into words.

Each shot in this film is jarring, oftentimes breath-taking. My roommate, after everything was done, texted me from a few seats ahead, “I’m shook, like breathless.” This is a film where men don’t exist to serve any purpose but to transfer love (in its physical form) across a body of water. There are only two men in the whole film that speak any words. Women are centered, and the main focus of each shot. Many times, if a singular woman is in shot, she is framed facing the camera, her eyes piercing the other woman (and us, the audience). If there are two women on screen, they face each other, their eyes wandering to one another, exchanging glances and stares, us watching their intimate interactions.

Credit: Curzon Artificial Eye

This film has many themes, whether it is the subtle tease of yearning for someone you cannot be with, or a woman’s freedom and lack thereof to choose. It is also about the construct of memory: the moments we attach to the people we love as a way to continue loving them. Many of these themes use one another to keep the film almost entirely metaphorical, from applying the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as an allegorical tool to intensify love and memory, to the added subplot of Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) a young housemaid, choosing to have an abortion with the help of women who do not question her decision – a ploy to celebrate choice and a familiar understanding of shared pain.

Marianne’s original task is to paint Héloïse in secret because Héloïse refused to pose for the man who was initially hired to paint her. He, in frustration, destroyed the painting. Héloïse’s mother invites Marianne, a skilled painter, to act as Héloïse’s walking companion, encouraging her to study her subject without Héloïse knowing, or choosing to expose vulnerability. This, in itself, poses the question of the inherent nature of intrusion in the experience of witnessing. Iconic cultural critic, theorist, and chaser of all intellectual pursuits, Susan Sontag, examines this in her book On Photography. She famously says, “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”

Is analyzing a person without their knowledge a form of violation? Is painting a portrait of someone the same as taking a photograph? The subject will never perceive themselves as the painter or photographer does – there will always be something the subject will never quite understand. And what happens when the subject and the capturer fall in love? Sontag was a close companion to legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz for many years before Sontag’s death, and the photos that Leibovitz took of Sontag are some of the most tender depictions of Sontag the world would ever see, an unlikely snapshot of the typically stoic and composed cultural icon. Leibovitz told the New York Times in 2006, “You don’t get the opportunity to do this kind of intimate work except with the people you love, the people who will put up with you.”

As Héloïse and Marianne go on their walks, Héloïse spends most of the time reading or in silence. Marianne finds quiet moments to sketch Héloïse. In one of the moments in between silence and secretive sketching, Marianne asks about Héloïse’s late sister, who has committed suicide, leaving Héloïse her fate of marrying her suitor. As this medium close-up shot remains still on the two women, they stare at one another with an unmatchable intensity. In what seems like an effort to console her, Marianne tells Héloïse that she makes her situation “sound terrible.” Explaining that she doesn’t know anything of her marriage other than that her future husband is Milanese, Héloïse asks Marianne if she’s ever going to marry. Marianne explains that she probably will not because she doesn’t have to, that she’ll take over her father’s business instead. Héloïse is reactive and says, “You can choose. That’s why you don’t understand me.” A heartbeat passes and Marianne looks back at Héloïse, “I understand you.”

Credit: Curzon Artificial Eye

It wasn’t until the second time I witnessed this moment that my eyes immediately filled with ache. What is it that Marianne understands? Is it the way her heart has chosen for her, that she is desiring Héloïse with an unexpected ferocity? Is it the situation they are both finding themselves in, that even if Héloïse is the one who has to marry, Marianne has no choice but to watch her leave? It is one of the first instances of vulnerability, a split second of the two women admitting fear to one another – some could say it is the first moment of them falling in love.

After Marianne finishes the initial portrait, she asks Héloïse’s mother if she can tell the truth to Héloïse first. When Héloïse looks at the portrait, she asks “Is that me? Is that how you see me?” There is a tinge of disappointment, a worry that these feelings of complex desire are unreciprocated. Marianne responds, “It’s not only me. There are rules, conventions, ideas.” Héloïse snaps: “You mean there’s no life? No presence?” This argument is heated, not because Héloïse is disappointed with the portrait, but because the person who painted the portrait captured a distant, lifeless version of her, not the pure essence of Héloïse herself. Héloïse says to Marianne, “The fact it isn’t close to me, that I can understand. But I find it sad it isn’t close to you”, an angered slap to not just the artist’s work, but the developing intimacy between the two. It demands an answer to the unsaid question: “Why don’t you see me?”, but Héloïse understands why; she declares that she will pose for Marianne. Her mother, in shock, asks why. Héloïse responds asking “What does it change for you?” Héloïse’s mother leaves for five days, and the house turns into a place of bonding between the women.

Céline Sciamma speaks about the comfort in “equality” between two lovers, how the feeling of sameness can beg for a more intense and connected passion. In this case, this equality is applied to queer romance, more specifically a commonality that stems from two cisgender women in 18th century France. Though quite opposite in lived reality, the two still share something greater than just their genitalia: the overall experience of navigating the world as restricted women, with Héloïse being unable to choose the life she desires and Marianne being limited in her painting practice, forced to use her respected father’s name to make great art and be recognized for it.

It is through this idea of “equality” that a metaphor arises, and witnessing morphs into a tool for creating memory. When Marianne is painting a now consenting Héloïse, she apologizes for hurting her through her original painting, to which Héloïse deflects, “You haven’t hurt me”, but visually we see their vulnerability in its most earnest state. Marianne begins, “I have, I can tell.” The camera follows each whip, “When you’re moved you do this with your hand.” Héloïse breaks a smile and bites as Marianne continues, “When you’re embarrassed, you bite your lips.” There is a seriousness now, “And when you’re annoyed, you don’t blink.” The painter reveals not just the secret to her work, but the very ways in which she perceives her subject, details only someone who has fallen in love could pick up so acutely.

Credit: Curzon Artificial Eye

Marianne says, “Forgive me, I’d hate to be in your place.” To which Héloïse replies, “We’re in the same place. Exactly the same place”, a conversation that parallels their first moments of exchanging vulnerability, of their imbalanced power dynamic. Frustrated, Héloïse demands Marianne to come to her, and uses this opportunity as her turn to evaluate the painter. “If you look at me, who do I look at?” In this moment, there is tension. The act of the two confronting discomfort when they are exposed in unison is how their love forms. They are crafting memories of one another, described in bodily gestures and physical reactions. It is the purest form of human connection; it is the act of witnessing someone else, the moment where there is no stopping the fall; the memory has already been glued to the mind like a missing body piece. As Héloïse once admitted to Marianne when she went for a walk on her own for the first time, “In solitude, I felt the liberty you spoke of. But I also felt your absence.”

This entire film carefully constructs these moments, before ending it with a scene so agonizing it is impossible to forget where you were when you watched it for the first time, with your friends clenching the couch and weeping, or the second time, in a historic Chicago theater next to a new potential lover and surrounded by strangers, sobbing not with catharsis but with an unstoppable heartbreak. The film itself and the experience of witnessing the film are twisted, both imprinting inescapable memories on your mind. The accumulation of one’s own heartbreak and yearning act as a montage while Héloïse compels the screen, while we witness the painter witness the subject, the lover witness the lover, us, the audience, witness the moving images. It is a comfort, a familiar ache, a reckoning with Sciamma’s choice to leave us with this solitary visual of a woman burning with love, memory, pain and beauty all at once. We are left with a smile cracking and a symphony exploding in sound.