A love story – such tired three words in the cinematic language. But also capable of providing infinite loveliness to the world. More often than not, we, as an audience, are served an exhausted trope of one-soul-residing-in-two-bodies in movies, with all its predictable meet-cutes and other happenings in place. But every once in a while, a few artistes get together to push the boundaries of what films can show us in terms of human experiences and emotions. And the Celine Sciamma-directed acclaimed film Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one such film.
I say acclaimed, but I would not be surprised if a good chunk of people reading this would not have heard about the French movie. Because these independent, non-commercial movies don’t get advertised that much despite winning a gazillion awards. And no, it’s not because their sensibilities are different and they cater to a niche audience. At least, I don’t think so. I am inclined to think, and so have many actors confirmed in various interviews, that people who make films want their end product to be seen by as a big a crowd as possible. Thankfully, that has started happening more due to the advent of streaming services. I watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire recently on Amazon Prime Video and was blown away. And not because I was their target audience, but because love is a unifying feeling. This is what the 2019 movie does — it not only makes you root for its lead characters and their love story. But in addition to that, it helps you realise the pain of women living in a very, very limiting patriarchal society. The film gathers these different elements in the folds of its dress and moves as if it were an animated painting itself.
The plot revolves around a young lady called Heloise (Adèle Haenel) whose only wish is to be surrounded by music and nature. She loves taking walks, and she is not at all open to the idea of marriage. It is the 18th century, and a woman’s opinion about leading her own life doesn’t count. Heloise’s mother wants her daughter’s portrait painted in order to send it to a suitor in Milan. The mother has dreams of her own. She wants to see Milan again after ages. She wants to experience the joy of that city. However, her daughter has managed to thwart her attempts of getting the picture completed. She has somehow figured out a way to distress the painters and has successfully prevented them from completing her image. One day, her mother calls upon a lady painter called Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to get the job done. The catch here is that Marianne has to pretend to be Heloise’s companion in order to not get caught. The rest of the plot picks up from there.
At first slowly, and then more confidently, Marianne and Heloise take over their roles of an artist and her muse. A relationship takes birth, first out of curiosity, then out of love. You don’t see an important male character in the film at all. It is all about the female gaze, and the world does look different when you see it only from their eyes. However, the hold of patriarchy over these women is evident. It is recognisable in the way Heloise’s mother is hell-bent on getting her daughter married. It shows itself in Heloise’s maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) and her helplessness concerning her pregnancy. What is remarkable about the film is that director Sciamma doesn’t go out of her way to make these issues. They are seamlessly interwoven within the fabric of the larger story. Even the LGBTQ angle is not made a big deal of. One of its biggest triumphs is that you view Portrait of a Lady on Fire as nothing but an impactful and deeply moving love story. No other labels are needed.
You can watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire on Amazon Prime Video.