Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)

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Mr Sausage
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Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)

#1 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Jun 07, 2021 3:09 pm

DISCUSSION ENDS MONDAY, June 21st

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Re: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)

#2 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Jun 07, 2021 3:09 pm

The winner of the 2010s List project is our discussion topic this round.

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Re: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)

#3 Post by feihong » Mon Jun 07, 2021 8:05 pm

I can't think of anything too profound to say about this movie. It was very much all that I wanted out of a feature film. I afterwards watched Sciamma's previous "Water Lillies" and, though I do like movies featuring a lot of swimming, it didn't work the same effect upon me. I think that part of that feeling for me was that the ending of Portrait seems to confirm the mutual feelings between the two women, whereas the ending of Water Lillies goes with the more standard lesbian romance fiction cliche of people not feeling the same way about each other.

I showed my mother this film; she has always been a little reticent to accept the validity of lesbian romance in fiction, and I think it somehow bothers her that it is one of the main subjects in fiction which absorbs me. But she had no problem getting on board with this movie––possibly because it wasn't in a contemporary setting, and because the film was, in a sense, largely about the strictures women faced in that time. In that way I think the experience of watching the movie reminded us both of Jane Campion's The Piano, another film which really moved us both. But I was struck by my mother's different read of the ending image. She was certain that the ending image, pushing in on Heloise's face, existed solely in Marianne's imagination. Perhaps, she suggested, it wasn't even Heloise that Marianne saw at the concert, but rather, someone who looked like her. And so the tear running down Heloise's cheek was, perhaps, simply Marianne's wishful thinking, her need to feel that the depth of their relationship remained the same for Heloise, since it certainly had done so for Marianne.

To my mind, this reading probably reflects my mother's reticence to fully accept lesbian romance fiction as it's own totally valid genre; there has to be a mediating valence which makes the feelings the film details the expression of the particular intensity of youth, the feelings one has at a particular early point in life. I think it's important to her reading that these feelings not establish a deeper sense of the who the characters are. After seeing these kind of movies I always get treated to her stories of how she and her friends were besotted with a female camp counselor when they were pre-teens––but it wasn't love or lust or anything, absolutely not––just a feeling of involvement and affection het women have for each other at a particular time in their lives, or I get the story of how creeped out she was when her best friend from high school later revealed that she was lesbian and always had a one-sided crush on my mother. It's hard for me to unpack the intended meaning of these stories––especially when they're always delivered adjacent to a lesbian romance film we've just seen. I don't think it discounts my mother's read of the last scene in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but I can't help but feel that her interpretation is tied up in her need to feel that lesbian love is somehow less substantial, or at least, curtailed somewhat from the depth of other romance in fiction. I guess I choose to interpret the ending differently. I assume Marianne really does see Heloise at the concert. True, we get the encounter predominantly from Marianne's point of view, but my feeling is that as the camera crosses from one balcony to another we somehow transcend Marianne's gaze and achieve in the final framing of Heloise the ultimate goals of a portrait; to convey the truth of a person––to reveal what's inside of them. In that interpretation, I have to read Marianne's previous portraits of Heloise, including both the finished one she sends off to Heloise's husband-to-be and the one she paints for herself of Heloise on the beach, as failures, in a certain respect; none of them reveal the inner life of Heloise. The professional commissioned portrait, in fact, is meant to obfuscate the real person behind Heloise. The one Heloise poses for with Sophie is perhaps a statement, but it doesn't reveal the inner person of Heloise, either. It's only in the final profile we see of her at the end of the film, that we get a sense of the person inside Heloise, the need, the frustrated desire, her anger at the world, her ability to be moved. To my mind, we have to be in her presence at the end of the film to actually see that.

Or else, if it is Marianne's imagination that has crafted this final portrait of Heloise, then I suppose another interpretation of the ending is that Marianne is not done painting her; perhaps she will go on to paint Heloise once more, this time trying to draw out all of the inner turmoil and desire she has come to realize makes up Heloise's inner life.

I don't know. Just a bunch of weird thoughts on the movie. I was so, so happy to see Valeria Golino in another movie, also.
Last edited by feihong on Mon Jun 07, 2021 9:03 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)

#4 Post by knives » Mon Jun 07, 2021 8:12 pm

Have you seen any of Sciama’s other films? I actually thought this was a step down from here previous two and Zucchini.

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Re: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)

#5 Post by swo17 » Mon Jun 07, 2021 8:24 pm

I don't think I realized before that she had written Ma vie de courgette--another great film

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Re: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)

#6 Post by therewillbeblus » Mon Jun 07, 2021 8:43 pm

Arguably her best

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Re: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)

#7 Post by knives » Mon Jun 07, 2021 9:36 pm

Though that’s with the aid of some capital collaborators outside of her usual ones.

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Re: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)

#8 Post by therewillbeblus » Mon Jun 07, 2021 9:49 pm

I'm also not as huge a Sciamma fan as some, though I like everything she's done to some degree, aside from Water Lillies

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Re: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)

#9 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Jun 07, 2021 11:58 pm

I’ve seen all of her features and thought Portrait was easily the best (though I liked them all) and a ravishing film. Patient, adult, uninsistent, and deeply felt. The kind of movie where just the sustained shot of an actor’s face looking at something or gazing into the distance is riveting.

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Re: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)

#10 Post by Sloper » Sun Jun 13, 2021 11:47 am

feihong, your mother’s reaction is a very interesting one – like you, I’m sure Héloïse is really there at the end, but the idea that she is a projection of the artist’s imagination, driven by desire, feeds into a lot of other stuff in the film.
feihong wrote:Or else, if it is Marianne's imagination that has crafted this final portrait of Heloise, then I suppose another interpretation of the ending is that Marianne is not done painting her; perhaps she will go on to paint Heloise once more, this time trying to draw out all of the inner turmoil and desire she has come to realize makes up Heloise's inner life.
Perhaps this is the painting of Héloïse on the beach that we see at the start? It combines images and motifs from the rest of the film: Héloïse is facing away from us, refusing to show us her face; she appears to be standing on a beach, looking out to sea, although the wave-like patterns on the ground also make it resemble the ocean; there are dark clouds above her, and what might be a storm approaching from the left of the frame, recalling Marianne’s reading of the Vivaldi piece; and it’s night and her dress is on fire, as in the bonfire scene.

She’s also looking up at the moon, a stunningly bright but distant light in the sky, and it feels like there is a relationship between the moon’s brightness and Héloise’s fire. There’s also a sense that the moon is looking back at her, at once illuminating and igniting her. The moon and the fire are the painting’s two light sources, enabling us to see Héloïse, and this ties into the film’s preoccupation with art as a way of capturing and recording experiences (such as a backstreet abortion, for instance). In Sciamma’s commentary track (on the AE disc), she notes in the scene where Marianne plays the harpsichord that she is framed by the fire burning behind her, while Héloïse stares at her. This is, chronologically, the first image of a ‘young woman on fire’, and Sciamma comments that perhaps Marianne is burning because of Héloïse’s gaze. See also the countess thanking Marianne for making her laugh, simply by being present: ‘It takes two to be funny.’
hearthesilence wrote:Right off the bat, before it developed into a love story, I wondered if this was going to be an essay on what was often a woman's place in narrative cinema, traditionally and historically. Immediately the artist's gaze is fused with the audience's, and we have a model bringing to mind the movie stars that studios wanted to put up on screen (as well as how they wanted those women to be filmed and be seen). The way she's scrutinized by an artist made me very self-conscious about the way general audiences scrutinize movie stars, particularly women. I can't say this was the intention, but it feels like a natural by-product from a film that Sciamma said was a conscious attempt in bringing perspectives and stories to the cinema that she felt were missing.
Some of the most powerful moments in the early scenes are those when Héloïse turns to look at Marianne, confrontationally returning the gaze of the artist who is trying deconstruct and reconstruct her. We hear Marianne’s art lesson in voice-over as she follows Héloïse up the stairs, repeating the standard wisdom about the painting of ears, and there’s a nice irony about this ear-discourse being inaudible to the person whose ear we are studying…until she suddenly turns around, as if she has heard Marianne’s thoughts and is fed up of being objectified.

Sciamma was heavily influenced by Bergman’s Persona in this film, and the first obviously Bergman-esque moment is key here. The two women are standing on the cliff and we see them from the side, Marianne’s profile obscuring Héloïse’s. Marianne turns to look at her companion a couple of times, turning away again when Héloïse looks back – and the last time she turns to look, Héloïse is already in the middle of staring at her. It’s a very effective jump-scare. The Bergman film is about the terror of being seen, looked at, heard, connected with, deconstructed and reconstructed by another person’s (or artist’s) gaze or touch, and it’s as much about the disturbing implications of the artistic process as it is about human relationships themselves.

We feel that terror in Portrait of a Lady on Fire as well, especially in these moments when Héloïse ‘looks back’. We see her as a (potential) work of art from the beginning, as a person who will be turned into a painting, and it’s uncanny to find the painting looking back at us. There’s a brilliant shot where we follow her along the cliff-side, and every few seconds she glances back at us (without a reverse-shot of Marianne) – then there’s a disorienting cut to Héloïse descending onto the beach, not from Marianne’s point of view. This feels very Bergman-esque as well: the film is unsettling our and Marianne’s assumptions about who is looking, who is being looked at, and where we position ourselves in this relationship.

However, one of the reasons it’s so nice to be discussing this film just after The Passion of Anna is that makes for a refreshing change from Bergman’s – I think largely pessimistic – view of human relationships. After all, it’s the first ‘look back’ from Héloïse that really sets the tone for the relationship to come, and the tone is not pessimistic. Marianne first sees Héloïse from behind in her dark cloak, they go out together into the initially blinding sunshine, the hood of the cloak gradually falls away to reveal Héloïse’s golden hair, and then after running to the edge of the cliff, she turns around to face her new friend with an expression of unashamed joy – not at all what we would have expected after such a forbidding introduction. Her breathless confession about longing to ‘run’ (not ‘die’ as Marianne had thought) feels similarly open, affectionate, and trusting. The first thing she does with Marianne is to declare a desire and fulfil it.

Whereas Bergman’s relationships tend to be built around conflict, power struggles, mind games, cruelty, and lies (or at least ambiguous communication), here the characters connect on the basis of mutual desire, consensual physical contact, an assumption of equality, and an effort to communicate clearly and in good faith. And what do you know, the resulting film is not boring, or lacking in dramatic tension, or superficial, or anodyne…

The other major Bergman quotation – a direct homage to Persona – is another case in point. It occurs after the women first kiss and Héloïse runs away in fear. Marianne returns to her room to find the fire burning and Héloïse standing next to it. The way the two embrace echoes the scene where Elisabet visits Alma late at night in Persona, and they look into the camera as if into a mirror as their bodies intertwine. It’s a very beautiful but sinister sequence, full of all kinds of terror related to identity, reflection/representation, and sexuality. In Sciamma’s version, the women just focus on each other, not their mirror- or screen-selves, and Héloïse’s gay panic is immediately acknowledged and put aside. Yes, the woman being painted is looking back at the artist, and the painting is a painting of her ‘painting’ Marianne in her head, and all this reciprocal gazing-and-desiring is intense and disturbing at first…but then it turns into the safest place in the world.

The idea that art, and all forms of communication, are always mediated and indirect, is not a cause for despair in this film. When the countess says, ‘Kiss me like you did when you were a child’, Héloïse responds by kissing her fingers and then pressing them to her mother’s cheeks. It’s a mediated kiss, but somehow is more meaningful and affectionate because of that, perhaps because it’s so deliberate and intentional. The point is not that a kiss on the cheek would be too direct: the kiss becomes a kind of present, lovingly prepared, transported, and delivered. Far from being artificial, this gesture clearly represents an openness and affection that are now all but gone from this mother/daughter relationship, but that become integral to Héloïse’s relationship with Marianne.

The latter’s intense ‘regard’ is perhaps initially mistaken for attraction, but then the desire to paint Héloïse, and the act of painting her, become ways of making love to her, until by the end the two acts are practically merged together – another upbeat twist on Persona. And far from being associated with lies and misrepresentation, art is seen here as a vehicle for truth. Héloïse is disappointed with the first portrait because it is defined by conventions and rules, with no ‘life’, no ‘presence’, and nothing that is really close to either the subject or the artist. This doesn’t reflect badly on art itself, it’s just a bad painting, and when Marianne implicitly agrees by wiping out the portrait’s face, this prompts Héloïse to collaborate in the creation of a ‘truer’ work of art.

It also begins a process of Héloïse prompting Marianne, not only to free herself from the patriarchal regulations that dictate what a painting should look like, but also to use painting as a vehicle for political statements. She tells Marianne not to look away from Sophie’s abortion, and then she’s the one who says ‘We have to paint this’. Immediately before the abortion, we see the three women waiting outside and Marianne keeps looking and smiling at Héloïse; Sophie glances at Marianne as if to say ‘knock it off’; but meanwhile Héloïse herself is staring seriously at the ground, clearly preoccupied with what is about to happen, and meditating on its larger significance.

Knowing Marianne has brought her into contact with things that have been carefully excluded from her experience so far. Equally, her long-pent-up anger is able to disrupt Marianne’s placid conformity and enrich her life and work.

When the couple finally do argue, it’s because Marianne seems to be blaming Héloïse for her imminent arranged marriage. Initially, Marianne advised Héloïse to accept the marriage and find consolation in its accompanying perks; now, radicalised and infected with Héloïse’s own anger, she wants her to resist. This is frustrating for Héloïse, partly because she taught Marianne to be angry about this stuff, but more because Marianne is blaming the victim here, showing that she still doesn’t understand how powerful are the social structures that bind a woman like Héloïse.

To go back to the issue of Marianne ‘imagining’ Héloïse at the concert, this obviously relates to the film’s use of the Orpheus myth. Marianne argued that Orpheus’ backward look represents the poet’s choice rather than the lover’s: he chooses the memory, the ‘constructed version’, of Eurydice rather than the real thing. But Héloïse makes the most striking contribution to that debate when she comments, ‘Perhaps it was Eurydice who said, “Turn around”.’ This is a kind of riposte to Marianne’s reading, but also a way of building on it. I think her point is that the poet’s and the lover’s choice are not mutually exclusive. If Eurydice herself – the real person, not the memory – told Orpheus to turn around and therefore lose her, that makes the choice a mutual one, an agreement to treasure the memories, songs, paintings, or whatever, rather than continue the flesh-and-blood relationship.

Héloïse is laying the ground for her own farewell to Marianne. They can’t have the flesh-and-blood relationship beyond these few days, but that doesn’t mean that what they have afterwards isn’t real. Earlier, Marianne argued against trying to portray a person’s ‘presence’ in a painting on the basis that this presence is made up of fleeting impressions, but Héloïse responds that not all impressions are fleeting – some feelings are profound and lasting, like those embodied in the art (and the memories) these two create and experience together.

So when Héloïse listens to Vivaldi at the concert, she’s also listening to Marianne struggling to get the notes right on the harpsichord, and she’s experiencing the storm represented by Vivaldi, and the orchestra performing Vivaldi, and Marianne’s description of the piece, and so on. Marianne is ‘with’ Héloïse not only because she is looking at her, but because of those accumulated past experiences and the memories they created. Her current act of looking at Héloïse adds another layer to all these representations and mediations – but again, it’s no less real or intimate because it’s at a distance, or because Héloïse doesn’t know she is literally being looked at, or because they don’t literally meet after this. We see Marianne’s gaze only for a few seconds before we adopt her point of view, getting closer and closer to its object, and at this point we are sharing the emotional and bodily reactions of both women – it’s clear from all the love heaped on this film that many spectators are heaving and sobbing violently by the end… (Not me of course.) As Héloïse tells Marianne, ‘We are in the same place. Exactly the same place.’

One final random note about the Orpheus theme: Marianne draws her self-portrait on p. 28 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, at the end of Book 10, which is the book dominated by Orpheus. Following his loss of Eurydice he loses interest in women and becomes the first Thracian man to sleep with other men instead of women. At the start of Book 11 the Thracian women tear him limb from limb for this rejection, and he ends up in the underworld, back with Eurydice and free to walk in front of or behind her, and to look back at her, as much as he wants. On the page where Marianne draws, you can read the end of Orpheus’ final song, describing the death of Adonis and his transformation into a blood-coloured flower that blooms only briefly before the winds destroy it. I don’t have anything else to say about this, but it all seems significant!

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