Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) is now streaming on Mubi
“Does every lover feel like they’re inventing something?” Says, the Artist to her Art. And the lover to her lover as art and romance merge to create a visual symphony of forbidden love. The Muse of the artist is trapped on an Island. Her sister’s death has condemned her to a marriage with a Nobleman in Milan. A man she has never seen. A man who has never seen her. A Portrait of hers has to be sent to her suitor. But she refuses to pose. Her mother employs an artist to be her walking companion, to observe her intimately while hiding her reality.
The Painter wears a bright red gown – it contrasts the more subdued palette of her surroundings. Her gown is more revealing. Even when it’s considered immodest, she paints nude men. She’s not intimidated by the high waves of the sea and jumps right into the depth of the ocean to save her painting. Also, she’s unafraid of asking uncomfortable questions.
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The muse is more docile and has never known “choice”. She dreams of running but stops at the edge. She wishes to swim but doesn’t know if she can. Her emerald green gown matches her eyes. It matches the interiors of her somber mansion. She, however, feels alive as she runs out of her darkened home to a blindingly bright Island. Wild waves of the Island hitting against the rocky shore, yet returning to the ocean, only to try again. They take their time, but slowly develop a bond. “Have you known love? the Muse asks as she slowly feels the equality she wished and as she finally has a reason to laugh wherein she realizes the power of music.
The Muse finds her portrait unappealing. The painter’s ego is bruised. There are rules she says. But what about life? asks the Muse. The question leaves her stunned. She decides to paint her again, the mother of the muse is unimpressed. However, the muse decides to pose for her – leaving the mother flabbergasted. She gives her five more days to complete the Portrait while she goes on a tour. In the absence of her patriarchy enabling mother, they find freedom. Freedom to bond with their maid. Freedom to play cards. Freedom to tell stories. And freedom to “Invent” something new.
The Painter doesn’t look at her muse anymore. She stares into her soul, she doesn’t observe her she memorizes her. But its no more just her, the muse is reciprocating in the same manner. They’re both playing this little game of gazes and glances where every gesture is recorded and every breath inhaled.
The muse tells them the story of Orpheus, a man who convinced the Gods to let her lover return to him. The Gods accept his demands but asked him to not look back. But as they are on the threshold, he loses his patience and turns and ends up losing her lover. The three women have different takes on the issues. While The Maid thinks it was stupid, the artist believes he made a poets choice of living with her memories. while the Muse questions what if the girl asked her to return?
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This conundrum runs throughout the film. We see the Painter just looking at the muse as a painting. She’s thinking solely as an artist devoted to her art. Her gaze is external. She notices her hand gestures and her ears and her nose as if she’s looking at her as an object. She sees her without looking at her. Her vision is artistically accurate but emotionally hollow. She talks about presence as fleeting moments. She sees her float. But maybe she was swimming. Swimming for her. Or maybe she does and she ignores. She stares at her only when the muse isn’t looking. Unaware that she’s been looked at.
It’s only when she realizes that she’s in the same vulnerable position of being the center of someone’s attention that she drops her guard. The reciprocity of the muse shifted the narrative from her being the one in control to a more balanced equation where they were both actively involved. All of a sudden it wasn’t just about the choices made by Orpheus. It is as if even Eurydice could have been the one who asked Orpheus to turn.
The beauty of Portrait of a Lady of Fire (2019) lies in how it transforms the very idea of Romance into an art form. A great art form like a great romance can never become great unless it’s personal and intimate, and unless its as passionately loved by the creator as the consumer. One can create a work of art but every artist needs a patron. Someone who engages with his art and appreciates its greatness. Its the engagement of the fan/patron which breathes life into an otherwise static or lifeless form.
Another interesting aspect of the film – other than the breathtaking camerawork, terrific performances, and production design is how the film basically shows only female characters and still ends up questioning patriarchy. However, it wouldn’t have been half as good if not for the lead actors. Director Celine Sciamma – being a woman and having had a relationship with a woman knows exactly how to capture the raw beauty of her lead pair. Having loved Adele in real life she could have been the Painter herself. And that’s why the film is seen through the Painter’s eyes. Which can be equated with the director’s own gaze. The difference being she wasn’t painting her she was directing her.
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Adele Haenel and Naomie Merlant use every muscle of their face to show their emotions. Just look at Adele as she sits in the Opera listening to the same symphony. Look how her breath rises and falls with the music and how her eyes turn tearful and her smile widens. Its poetry on celluloid. Or even just look at them standing on the opposite side of a bonfire – looking at each other as they get so lost in each other’s passionate yearning for love that the Muse transforms into a Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Maybe like them, both Orpheus and Eurydice knew their love was bound to remain unfulfilled. So they just decided to mutually say Goodbye. Maybe they just couldn’t stop looking even if the result was doom. And maybe it doesn’t even matter as for those moments they felt their presence and they felt incredibly alive.