“To Achieve their goal, masterpieces must charm but also penetrate the soul and make a deep impression on the mind that is similar to reality…Therefor the artist must have studied all the motives of mankind and he must know nature thoroughly. In short he must be a philosopher”
It is no secret that the world of cinema has not been kind to women in the director’s chair. But perhaps the tide is finally turning. In recent years, we’ve seen the likes of Greta Gerwig and Patty Jenkins produce incredible films worthy of accolades. Yet, no filmmaker is quite like the woman of the hour on today’s episode. She has already made several incredible films such as Tomboy and Girlhood.
When it is all said and done, Portrait of a Lady on Fire might be Céline Sciamma’s towering achievement.
You’re listening to Film Survey with J.G. Murphy. I am your host, J.G. Every week, we explore the history and themes of some of the greatest films in cinema history. But instead of randomly picking films week in and week out, we look at a certain theme and multiple films that are linked by that theme, sort of like a college course. Our first section is Their Eyes are on History: French Filmmakers and the story of France. This week, we examine the 2019 Queer Palm winner Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
This show is part of the TMK Pictures Family of Podcasts. For more content, please visit our website www.tmkpictures.com and our YouTube channel. Just look for the green clover.
I’m still wondering how I missed this wonderful film. Portrait of a Lady on Fire came out last year, in the fall of 2019. Some of you are probably thanking the heavens above that I am finally doing a film a lot more recent - and one with dialogue. Don’t worry, there will be a lot more recent films coming up - especially for our next section. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that the only good films were made before 1950. But there are a lot of good films from that era, and I am sadden to see that they’re slowly being forgotten as time moves on.
That being said, it was a bit of a breath of fresh air to pull myself out of the silent era, as much as I love it. The fact that I missed this and didn’t get a chance to see it in a movie theater is a bit of a bummer. Nonetheless, I’m glad I came across it.
I sincerely apologize to my Les Mis fans in the audience, although I wasn’t planning on covering any musical, British, or American version of the Hugo novel. At first, I was going to cover the 1958 version. Then, I found the superior 1934 version on the Criterion Channel. However, as I was about to press play on Raymond Bernard’s nearly five hour long film, I happened across an article detailing great historical French films. You’re probably thinking what I’m thinking: what’s up with French directors and five hour films? Beats me. But it should be worth noting that Bernard’s take on Victor Hugo’s novel is an incredible watch, and I do recommend you give it a try.
But, this is not an episode on Les Miserables. This is about Portrait of a Lady on Fire: a story about forbidden love and the allure of desire.
Before we get into the film itself, let’s look at its incredible director and the history of homosexuality in France, so that we can better understand the world this film inhabits.
Céline Sciamma was raised in Cergy-Pontoise a suburb outside of Paris. Her brother, Laurent Sciamma, is a stand-up performer. As a child, Sciamma was an avid reader and became interested in film as a teenager. After studying literature, she attended la Fémis, the premiere film school in France. As part of her final evaluation, Sciamma wrote a script that impressed evaluation panel chairman Xavier Beauvois. Beauvois became a mentor to Sciamma and persuaded her to turn her script into a feature. A year later, she starting doing just that, and Water Lilies was born.
Water Lilies was selected at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for three awards at the 2008 César Awards. Sciamma was nominated for Best Debut and both Adéle Haenel and Louise Blachére were nominated for Most Promising Actress.
In 2009, Sciamma directed the short film Pauline as part of the anti-homophobia campaign “Five films against homophobia.”
Her next film, Tomboy, would be completed from writing to wrap in just sixty-two days and is now shown in French schools for educational purposes. And in 2014, she made Girlhood which would play at Canne, the Toronto International Film Festival, and Sundance.
All three features were coming of age stories, and Sciamma considered all of three to be part of a trilogy. She has stated she’ll never make another coming-of-age film.
In such a short time, Sciamma has become one of the most respected directors in France, serving as co-president of the Society of Film Directors since 2015.
All of her films share a common thread - they are about women coming to terms with their sense of self, whether that be race, gender identity, or sexuality.
She has said, “People keep telling me, "You don't like boys!" And I'm saying, "Wow, no, it's just that you're not used to them being objectified in movies, but women are so often objectified in movies and we don't care."
In 2018, she began shooting her next triumph: Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The film tells the story of two women who fall in love on an island in Brittany in the late 18th century. Now, obviously, our views on homosexuality today differ than what they were back in those days. I’d even say there are many who still cling to those old beliefs - as wrong as they are.
Before the French revolution, sodomy was a serious crime. The last gay people to be burned to death were Jean Diol and Bruno Lenoir on July 6, 1750. In fact, the first French Revolution actually decriminalized homosexuality when the Penal Code of 1791 made no mention of same-sex relations in private. Now, it isn’t absolutely clear when this film takes place. We only know that it’s the late 18th century. Yet, even if it were set after 1791, the penal code did not protect those from public same-sex relations, which adds validity to keeping the relationship of the two leads a secret.
Despite homosexuality not being illegal, people of the LGBTQIA+ community were still persecuted and subjected to legal harassment. There is a long history of double standards in French laws. Indecent exposure gets you so many years, but if you commit indecent exposure and it is deemed a homosexual act, the penalty was doubled. Despite Gay Marriage being legalized in 2013, there are still many hurdles to overcome. Adopting and family planning are still issues today, and as of 2019, lesbian couples do not have access to assisted reproductive technology.
All of this is important to understand not only because the film we are looking at is about two women who fall in love, but its director is a lesbian herself. This is her history. She has had to live through it day in and day out.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire does a lot of things that might seem unnatural in today’s filmmaking. But that is what makes it so unique and interesting to watch.
Now, before we get started, let’s lay out the main players. This film has almost an an entirely female ensemble. We have our two leads: Marianne, the painter; Héloïse, the subject; Sophie, the maid; and La Comtesse, the mother. There are other characters, but those are the main players. There are also two looming unsee characters: Héloïse’s sister, and her future husband.
The unseen character can be a great device for filmmakers to use. The person who is spoken about, their spirit always present, lingering in the air. Both unseen characters provide different obstacles to Héloïse. Her sister committed suicide, and she did not get to see her one last time before she jumped off the cliffs.
Though this is a plot point that falls by the wayside as the film progresses, it places an uneasy feeling on Marianne as Héloïse arrives home. Héloïse is coming home from the convent to take the place of her dead sister as the betrothed to a nobleman in Milan. Marianne is hired to paint Héloïse so the nobleman can know what she looks like before she arrives. The caveat being that she is to paint her in secret. Héloïse is under the assumption that Marianne has been hired to be her companion until she leaves for Milan.
Marianne, who has never met Héloïse before, has no idea what kind of headspace Héloïse will be in when she arrives. It forces her to tip toe around Héloïse. And it all comes to a head when Héloïse leaves the house and runs full speed towards the cliffs, stopping just before the edge. She just wanted to see how it felt.
As their relationship progresses and they become romantic, the nobleman from Milan becomes the symbol of inevitable grief. And the fact that we, the audience, cannot put a face to him, makes the sense of dread that much more terrible. And let’s not forget, this film takes place only over a period of a few days. They don’t have time to take things slow or even to say goodbye. Everything has to be dealt with in the here and now.
So, in a way, this film is a race against time. The only problem is, in this story, time cannot be beaten. That is truly the tragedy of this film.
Something that has been talked about a lot when discussing Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the power of gaze. There are several striking shots of both the gaze of Héloïse and Marianne. Héloïse’s gaze is haunting and inviting. Almost as if she can read every thought you’re processing, and you have no chance to hide from her. It’s a technique that is somewhat jarring, but it has a purpose. It’s very rare to see films where characters almost exclusively look each other straight in the eye during a scene. Natural human behavior dictates that we usually never look at one another when we talk. We’re usually preoccupied with something else.
Here, it seems that Sciamma is physically manifesting the connection between Marianne and Héloïse. When they’re together, they are looking at one another, completed invested in the other person. It shows their deep spiritual connection to one another, as if they just had a sixth sense that they were destined to meet one another.
This, tragically, is broken at the end of the film. After Héloïse had left and become the wife of the nobleman, Marianne spots her at a concert - more on the music in a minute. Marianne watches Héloïse, almost hoping she feels her gaze and connects with her again. But, Héloïse doesn’t turn. She stays fixated on the orchestra. The connection is seemingly broken.
Or, is it?
To understand this final shot, let’s discuss the music I mentioned. The orchestra plays the Presto from “Summer,” the famous piece of music from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons heard here. Earlier in the film, Marianne plays the Presto for Héloïse on the harpsichord back on the island in Brittany. Before that, the two talk about how music affects them. Héloïse even says she loves the convent life because of the music she would hear every day.
This serendipitous moment that the Presto plays and both of them are in attendance brings back all of those feelings Marianne felt for her. Héloïse was Marianne’s favorite subject. Perhaps, they can rekindle that flame. Perhaps, Héloïse might leave her life behind if she would just look over at Marianne.
That’s the fun obstacle about telling a story in the first person, the audience can only speculate what other characters are feeling. We are only aware of what Marianne is feeling at all times, but we can never truly know what Héloïse is feeling. As the Presto plays, Héloïse begins to cry, perhaps remembering that moment with Marianne.
I’d venture to say that Héloïse can sense Marianne’s presence, and that’s why she is so fixated on the orchestra. She knows if she turns to face Marianne, all of those emotions come back. The great actors tell you all you need to know with their eyes. Adéle Haenel plays this perfectly as she almost appears to want to turn. Then suddenly, she closes her eyes, as if to fight back that urge. She has a child now, she’s married to a nobleman. Going back to Marianne will only bring hardship on her and her family, considering the laws back then. Marianne knows this, but that doesn’t stop a sliver of a thought that it could work. She sadly states “I saw her, she didn’t see me.” The connection is broken forever.
There is so much more I’d love to unpack about this film, but I’d be recording probably three hours of material. That is how layered and intricate this film is. All of that credit goes to Sciamma. Her sense of blocking and where to place the camera is superb. When Marianne is studying Héloïse, Sciamma often elects to shoot extreme close-ups to find the details in Héloïse. The shape of her ear, the way she holds her hands, the curve of her smile. It is an intimate look at the subject, and a great lesson on how artists capture the inner life of those they paint.
She also tends to shoot a lot of oners - sometimes referred to as tracking shots. Some directors, you can tell they’re doing this to look cool, but Sciamma does it purely for the actors. She lets them play in the scene, build up their own timing and play off each other. The issue with using so many close-ups is that you end up missing that connection between two actors. Since the entire film is about the connection between these two women, there is no other way to shoot this. Oners are the way to go.
Sciamma frees up her actors in terms of blocking, as well. She lets them walk in and out of the shot. As long as she’s getting what she needs within the shot to tell the story, she doesn’t mind having an actor walk off and continue the scene. She’s still getting the reaction of the actor on screen, that tells the story enough.
Both Adéle Haenel and Noémie Merlant give incredible performances. The fact that they are asked to look each other in the eye so much allows them to transcend acting and truly connect on a spiritual level, human being to human being. It is clear to the audience that they enjoy playing sort of a game of chess before they end up falling in love. That push-pull is forever present, and truth is able to flourish.
The sound editing of this film is particularly interesting - and its a facet of filmmaking that is often overlooked. There are harsh cuts between scenes, where you have the crashing of the ocean waves and cut right to the silence of night inside the mansion. It’s jarring, but it serves a purpose. It shows how fleeting these moments of life are: blink, and you’ll miss it.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an instant classic, and I suspect it’ll be studied in film classes for years to come. It is a masterclass on letting actors explore and play, and the story is so well written. It’s easy to see why Sciamma was awarded Best Screenplay at Cannes. If you have Hulu, you’re in luck. It’s available on the streaming service. Sciamma’s other films are available on the Criterion Channel.
Next week, we will finish up our exploration of French history through film with Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows.
Thank you for stopping by on this weeks episode of Film Survey. This show is researched, written, and hosted by myself J.G. Murphy and is part of the TMK Pictures family of podcasts. If you would like to view a transcript of this episode, it will be available on filmsurveypodcast.com. If you would like to share your thoughts with me on this film, make sure to follow @filmsurveypodcast on instagram or you can shoot me a message @thejgmurphy on twitter. You can also email me directly at email@example.com. It is possible I may share your thoughts with the rest of the community.
I host another podcast, Obscurities of the Silver Screen with my dear friend and colleague Remy Grey. Episodes are available on Youtube or wherever you get your podcasts. Please be sure to check out more of TMK’s content including Space Stuff, Look Ma, No Helmet, and Inner Idiot Child. All shows are free to watch on TMK’s YouTube channel. Just look for the green clover.
Thank you for listening, and I look forward to next week’s discussion