Coastal Brittany, France, 1770. An oceanfront castle. A secret painting. And two hearts that stretch and grow to envelop the magic of femininity and its subtle resistance, until they are entwined into a single stream.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a painting come to life; soft and brash strokes, a satin texture, a weathered facade. Art preserves and articulates what is difficult for us to convey in our daily life. It takes fleetingness and transforms it into eternity. It’s Horace saying, “Exegi monumentum aere perennius (I have created a monument more lasting than bronze)”.
Artists seek immortality through art. They seek depth and understanding and liveliness, because art means remembrance. Art means Sappho saying, “Someone will remember us / I say / even in another time”.
It’s 2022, and it’s still rare to come across films that go beyond queer people’s struggle and pain, that normalise their romance, their expression of love. That’s why it’s important to go back to this piece of art in motion. A film that unravelled what sexual desire could mean for women in a closed patriarchal society.
Marianne, a Parisian painter, and Héloïse, a former convent girl from an aristocratic family, meet on an isolated island in 18th century France. The pair is brought together by Héloïse’s mother, who hires Marianne to paint a portrait of her daughter to send to a Milanese nobleman. If he approves of the painting, he and Héloïse are to be married.
To paraphrase Kim Gordon, in her memoir Girl in a Band, to be a woman is to observe others observing you. Likewise, to flirt as a queer person is to immerse one’s self in the act of looking and being looked at, sometimes in secret. For many of us, that gaze at someone or some image is how we first realised our sexuality.
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, the film captures the essence of queer women’s desire in a way many other films have tried and failed. Silence is used in the same way negative space is on a canvas. Through portraiture and conversation, Marianne and Héloïse draft and smudge and attempt again to understand one another, to build an accurate representation of the other that they can carry onward, despite its impermanence. The answer they come up with tells us what queer people have been quietly telling us forever: that their lives have always been present, even at times where their existence has been vehemently denied. Even in the face of a suffocating culture of repression, there are ways to be seen by one another, even if there aren’t ways to openly exist.
“In the solitude, I felt the liberty you speak of. But I also felt your absence.”
Every word spoken means so much because much of it is simply not permitted to be said, even in private. It dares you to listen closely, treasure the stolen glances. Art is faulty in its reproduction of human emotion but it’s there to remind us of our aliveness. So Marianne proposes to paint herself on a page of Héloïse’s book. Years later, when Héloïse gets her portrait taken with her daughter, she holds open the book just enough for the page number to be visible, like a secret: this is how I remember you. This is how I keep us alive.
Portrait of a Lady in Fire sees power in two women in love. It finds equality between its female characters by embracing the power dynamics that are possible when centuries of romantic road maps don’t easily apply. And it makes me cautiously optimistic that queer women might see more films in the future where they can take everything in, and never once have to look away.
Aishwarya Roy is a Biotechnology post-graduate. The engineer in her tries to solve life-problems, and the artist in her writes to make herself feel things.