Criterion has added a stunning and powerful recent release to its hallowed collection: Céline Sciamma‘s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Sciamma’s fourth feature stars Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel as two young women, one an artist and the other the subject of her latest commission, who find themselves slowly but surely drawn into the depths of a passionate, brief love affair which will stay with them for the rest of their lives. There is much to take in and contemplate with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, chiefly the powerful final scene which essentially unlocks the thesis of this movie.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a sensual, intelligent, clear-eyed look as the transformative power of love. However briefly it may be experienced, the impact felt by the bright burn of someone’s love for you leaves a lasting impression, as this movie argues until its last moment. You can spend the rest of your days returning to that love, picking it apart, examining it from new angles. Sometimes, the markers of a successful relationship is not its duration or if the love was bountiful; instead, the true markers are the relationship and love of any kind being exchanged at all. It also must be stated, if only for my sake, this movie is also gloriously queer as it peels back the layers of desire inherent to this form of love without judgement or shame.
Marianne (Merlant) is a young artist who travels to an isolated island off the coast of Brittany in Northern France in the 18th century. Marianne has been commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Haenel), a young women who is set to marry a Milanese nobleman, who will receive this portrait ahead of the marriage. Héloïse has refused to sit for her portrait before (perhaps in an effort to prolong the inevitable), so her mother (Valeria Golino) tells Marianne to pose as a daily walking companion and study Héloïse enough to paint by memory. Eventually, Marianne reveals her true purpose to Héloïse and the women find ways to prolong Marianne’s stay as they begin to explore their feelings for one another.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire concludes years after Marianne and Héloïse have parted ways, knowing they could not change the hands life dealt them and instead holding tight to the memories of their time together. We know this through two key final moments. In one scene, we see Marianne during a crowded gallery exhibition. She happens upon a new portrait of Héloïse with her young daughter. Marianne sees Héloïse has been painted holding a book and her finger marks the page of a book Marianne drew a self-portrait on for Héloïse to keep. The other moment is the final scene, where Marianne sees Héloïse attending the same orchestra performance as she. From Marianne’s point of view, we zoom in as Héloïse listens to the Presto section of “Summer” from Antonio Vivaldi‘s Four Seasons. It is the song Héloïse heard only a portion of as Marianne tapped it out from memory on the harpsichord during their time together and, as Héloïse listens to it in full all these years later, she begins to weep which lets us know she has held on to the memory of this song as something important, a keepsake of her time with Marianne.
What also makes this final shot of Héloïse so masterful as well is what is says from Marianne’s perspective. This is a movie which explores the power of observation, of appreciation for the subtleties of expression which make you appreciate the object of your desire that much more. In the last moment, we regard Héloïse from Marianne’s perspective in a way which, to an extent, we have done repeatedly throughout the movie. But this final image lets us see Héloïse through Marianne’s eyes with Héloïse’s defenses fully down. The raw feelings Héloïse kept bottled, at bay, just out of Marianne’s reach during their portrait sessions as young women is let out in this last shot. And it happens because Héloïse is listening to a song which, it would seem, reminds her of the woman she still loves in some way.
To feel the full impact of Héloïse’s tearful reaction to the full glory of Vivaldi’s “Summer,” it’s important to remember two key scenes from earlier in the story. In the first, Marianne introduces Héloïse to “Summer” and, specifically, the Presto section. In an effort to describe to the sheltered Héloïse what the effect of listening to an orchestra is like, Marianne chooses this song which encapsulate an approaching summer storm but also echoes what is the encroaching swirl of passion headed for these two women.
The thrill of this song, even in fragment, registers on both Marianne and Héloïse’s faces; this is their song now. It’s a look many of us know because it’s the look we get when we realize we’ve discovered the one song which will forever define the person who is the apple of our eye at the moment we listen. Songs are evocative, passionate things, a vocalization of emotion in a pure form. Portrait of a Lady on Fire tells us the Presto section of “Summer” will forever be Marianne and Héloïse’s song, with all its fleeting excitement, frenzy, and heat serving as manifestations of their love. It is also worth noting this is one of two pieces of music heard in an otherwise music-less world. This song emboldens Marianne and Héloïse to act on their feelings as they grow closer; music is their love language.
Another powerful moment in Portrait of a Lady on Fire is Héloïse’s reading of the “Orpheus and Eurydice” myth by firelight to Marianne and Héloïse’s servant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). Héloïse reads out the poignant and sad twist of the story: Orpheus, who travels to the underworld to retrieve Eurydice breaks the rule to not look back as his love as they exit the underworld, sending her back to the depths until he can join her again. While Sophie is upset, Marianne says Orpheus’ decision as one which makes sense, explaining, “Perhaps he makes a choice. He chooses the memory of her. That’s why he turns. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.” Marianne’s words seem like an acknowledgement of the fate of her relationship with Héloïse. She knows they will not be able to stay together and, as we eventually see, she makes the choice to keep the memory, knowing she will lose Héloïse forever.
As Sciamma pointed out in a March interview with The Independent, the traditional “happy ending” for Marianne and Héloïse was never the point:
“Yes, and also because I wanted to question what a happy ending is. We have the romantic-comedy philosophy – a frozen image of two people being together – and we also have the tragic ending. And I wanted neither. Why do we believe that eternal possession of somebody means a happy ending? Love educates us about art. Art consoles us from lost love. Our great loves are a condition of our future love. The film is the memory of a love story; it’s sad but also full of hope.”
There is nothing inherently melodramatic or overwrought about the end of Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship. Instead, Portrait of a Lady on Fire separates them for reasons which make sense given the time period and also, as Sciamma’s comments imply, because love stories are still love stories even if the relationship ends. We carry a plethora of love stories in our hearts. Love contains multitudes and it does not leave us. Instead, love grows with us as our understanding of it evolves. For Marianne and Héloïse, their love was as much a brief spell of instruction and seduction, a time to explore and grow and connect which the movie seems to argue enriched their later years for the better.
Even though Marianne and Héloïse can’t be together, Portrait of a Lady on Fire makes it clear they have not forgotten one another. The movie begins with us seeing the fruit of Marianne’s success in painting Héloïse from memory — something she failed to do during her time with Héloïse. The painting is of the other pivotal musical moment in the movie, where the young lovers and Sophie spend a night around a bonfire listening to an all-female choir sing into the night. As is made evident by the painting, this is a musical moment seared into Marianne’s brain and one which she will always be able to remember and paint from memory. Just as the Vivaldi harpsichord lesson was the moment Héloïse fell for Marianne and remains affected by that song as a reminder of those feelings, the moment around the bonfire, where Marianne had a vision of Héloïse in flames as a symbol of her passionate feeling, will stay with the young artist forever.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is now available on The Criterion Collection and Hulu. For more, check out our round-up of the best movies on Hulu right now.