“Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” October 24, 2020 (2019), DVD. Auteur Celine Sciamma has produced a period piece that is less interested in being a record of the time than an exposition on art, gender, power, love, class, and myth. It posits a woman’s world in what might also have been outside the class rigidities of prerevolutionary France. Noemie Merlant plays Marianne, a woman artist brought to the estate of a minor noble off the coast of Brittainy to paint the portrait of her daughter, Heloise, played by Adele Haena. The painting, done secretly at first, is being used to market Heloise for marriage to a Milanese nobleman. Heloise is extremely resistant, aware of the deal at issue and her commodification. The two young women develop a loving and passionate relationship as the portrait itself emerges, with the sitting becoming a full collaboration between them. They bring a female servant Sophie (Luana Bajrami) into their social group, further fracturing class boundaries in what is, essentially, a gynosphere. Gendered cultures lead them to the local female healer and abortionist. It leads them to think on and reinterpret the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. We watch the portrait emerge though the work and hands of feminist French avant gardist, Helene Delmaire, who recreates 18th century colors, textures, styles for the film.
I found the choice of Merlant’s character’s name interesting as well. Marianne is the very symbol of Revolutionary France. She is “liberte, egalite, fraternite” incarnate. Here her independence, her occupational choices, and her sexual decisions reflect that power, even as the presence of her painting of Orpheus and Eurydice has to be submitted to a salon under her father’s name rather than her own. Research is showing the presence of many female painters in pre-revolutionary France, although their work has been obliterated from history.
This Criterion DVD comes with a set of very challenging and informative supplements including interviews with Sciamma, the actors, the artist and the cinematographer. The latter, Claire Mathon, goes into great detail on the techniques used to capture both the interior of the chateau and the austere and beautiful land and seascapes. To attain the desired lush look the filmmakers opted for digital cinematography. Sciamma’s interview features an exceptionally theoretical analysis of view and gaze, object and subject, and the conceptual structure behind the film. This was very much her project with, seemingly, absolute directorial control.