The first scene of Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire narrows in on our titular painting. A lady in fancy gown, looks away to the empty horizon, isolated, the frills at the end of her dress set ablaze. The painting’s creator, Marianne (Noemie Merlant), looks through the painting, staring at a memory long in the past. This moment frames the anguish that drives the complex commentary on love throughout the film.
Marianne is commissioned by a high-society woman to paint her daughter, Heloise (Adele Haenel). As Marianne settles into the estate, she gathers rumors about Heloise’s sorrow. Heloise shrouds herself in her dark cloak, numbing herself to the constraints of 18th century society. She’s to piously accept the arranged marriage set up by her mother, expected to practice the concept of restraint learned at the convent to guide her in the strengthening of the family’s noble bloodlines.
This sense of anguish lurks around the corner in every aspect of Marianne and Heloise lives, but briefly we get to see fleeting moments of escape found in each other. For Marianne, it is an aesthetic release provided by her muse. Her passion ignites from mental snapshots she takes of Heloise. It’s the first sight of Heloise’s golden curls in the sunlight, her piercing blue eyes, and gentle slope of her neck that cement Marianne’s artistic attraction.
Heloise’s escapes come not from the lure of outward beauty, but the moments of liberation from internal strife. In Marianne arrives someone who can break free her emotions long locked away. A smile first cracks open as Marianne plays Heloise a first exposure to orchestral music, a discovery of something profound to define her existence. Through this relationship, she builds ways to contextualize her suffering from music to nature to art itself.
Cinema often portrays love as a permanent cure from our anguish, but Sciamma sees it differently in her award winning screenplay. Yes, Marianne and Heloise find their longest reprieve as they fully consume themselves in one another, but eventually the constraints of life return and sorrow prevails. The motifs of fire as passion in the film quickly give way to signs of internal distress. The complexity of their love pulls back and forth as they look longingly at each other from opposite sides of a crackling bonfire. Heloise’s dress begins to catch fire with her reacting with nothing but emptiness. Eventually, the world swallows up you back up and those moments of escape burn off into the night.
This might make the mood of the film sound awfully bleak, but Sciamma tries to have her characters live outside the binary of happy and sad. Yes, her existential argument centers around the idea that to exist is to feel pain, but she also communicates that any experiences that temporarily lift us from that pain is worth the heartbreak that might follow. Sciamma supports this belief by comparing her two lovers to the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.
With Orpheus ordered by Hades to not look at his lover Eurydice until they escape the underworld, Orpheus cannot resist her beauty, turns back, and on the precipice of exit Eurydice sinks back down below. According to Marianne in her interpretation, Orpheus decides to accept the memory of Eurydice, a blissful moment preserved in the mind, never to be soured by time.
Marianne has her own Orpheus moment. At the threshold of her goodbye, she peers back at Heloise, angelic in her wedding gown. The image both haunts and delights. It’s the perfect encapsulation of aesthetic ecstasy Marianne found in her muse, but also reminds of a love doomed from the beginning by expectations. Both fade from each other’s lives forever, only memory remains.
Sciamma concludes her film by showing her characters as a sum of their experiences. Heartbreak facilitated growth. Marianne improved as an artist, her agony translating to a deeper connection with her canvas. Heloise has found a similar connection with her emotions, her tear-streaming reaction to the symphony far removed from the blank face first seen on the French cliffs. Portrait of a Lady on Fire refuses to coddle audiences with a love conquers all messaging, but it does give us some solace in its reminder that at least our anguish drives our human existence forward.