With Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma offers us an unexpectedly timely commentary on our present moment of social distancing, self-quarantines, and curfews. This film about cooped-up lovers, who turn to art to grapple with questions of visibility and facelessness, bears important lessons for us as we come to grips with our own isolation amidst pandemic, which will someday find its place on screens and canvases.
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“There once lived a red-haired man who had no eyes or ears,” wrote the Soviet poet Daniil Kharms in his 1937 short story “Blue Notebook, No. 10,” a classic work of literary absurdism. “He also had no hair,” Kharms continues, “He couldn’t speak since he had no mouth. He had no nose either. . . . So there’s no knowing who we are talking about.”1 Besides capturing the topsy-turvy world of Stalin’s Russia – a world in which people literally vanished into thin air – Kharms’ story raises questions about the very nature of personhood. It throws the relationship between individuality and physiognomy into question. The featurelessness of this “red haired man,” who, paradoxically, “had no hair,” makes it impossible to know him; Kharms even fails in his narration. “He had nothing at all!” Kharms writes, “We’d better not talk about him anymore.”2 Can there be identity without a face? What is it that facial features do for self-definition? Does facelessness preclude existence? Is selfhood, as Kharms suggests, a matter to be negotiated face-to-face? These questions acquire especial weight amidst our present moment of quarantines and “social distancing” as biomedical realities have evacuated public life, rendering us all somewhat “faceless” ourselves.
These are the very issues at stake in Céline Sciamma’s new film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which tells the story of a professional portraitist in the late eighteenth century, Marianne, who’s been commissioned to paint a French noblewoman in secret. Arriving at an isolated island off the coast of Brittany, where her subject, Héloïse, is quarantined before her wedding, Marianne is instructed to present herself as a friendly handler, so she can stealthily observe Héloïse and commit her findings to canvas, which will then be presented to Héloïse’s husband-to-be, an Italian courtier living in Milan. These arrangements have been made by Héloïse’s mother because her daughter has rebuffed all previous attempts to capture her likeness in paint. The portrait will serve as a promissory note that offers a man an image of everlasting virginal beauty that will outlive Héloïse, whose appearance will soon register the effects of motherhood and age. Marianne is to suss out Héloïse’s eternal image, to petrify her like a fly in amber. Yet Héloïse refuses to sit still.
Our first view of Héloïse is literally one of her on the move. It comes twenty-minutes into the film, but her face, obstructed by cloth and Claire Mathon’s elastic camerawork, hardly comes into focus. Héloïse is seen swathed in a thick dark-colored cape – a sartorial relic from her days in the convent – that lends her an inscrutably funereal look. Marianne follows her outside, studying her gait, whereupon Héloïse breaks into a sprint and edges toward a cliffside, threatening to throw herself off just like her sister did in protest of her intolerably sheltered life. Héloïse turns around with an enigmatically exhilarated expression, a mixture of desperate daringness and daring desperation. Marianne struggles to “read” Héloïse, asking her if she wanted to die only to learn that she simply longed to run (Figures 1 and 2). This series of shots unmistakably replicates a sequence from Maya Deren’s 1943 experimental short Meshes of the Afternoon, which Sciamma, who studied filmmaking at the world-renowned La Fémis in Paris and describes Portrait of a Lady on Fire as a “manifesto about the female gaze,” certainly has playing in her creative imagination.3
In Meshes, Deren explores a woman’s subjective relationship to space in which her protagonist (played by Deren herself) is, like Héloïse, cloistered away in her small West Hollywood apartment and, like Marianne, following a mysteriously black-hooded person who holds the promise of deep meaning (Figures 3 and 4). Yet this figure, whose face is itself an unreflective mirror, eschews answers; it keeps Deren’s fate (and film) open-ended and unsatisfied in a way that enacts the uncertainty of female experience in 1940s America. Sciamma’s interfilmic dialogue with Deren’s “aesthetics of the almost” provides a useful signpost to interpret the motif of faces in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which almost-but-never-quite come into view.4 The access into a person’s interior world facilitated by the face – so central to the close-up in film history – is deferred in Portrait. Sciamma’s viewers are not invited to identify with Héloïse, thereby disrupting the ways female subjectivity is “captured” onscreen or, for Marianne, on canvas. Like the faceless grim reaper figure in Meshes of the Afternoon, Héloïse’s visage is a kind of unreflective mirror, a source of misrecognition. Portrait of a Lady on Fire upends the standard practices of portraiture.
For the first third of the movie, while Marianne must keep her paintings hidden, Sciamma gives viewers just glimpses of what Héloïse’s portrait might look like. Marianne clandestinely sketches her discreet details, breaking up Héloïse’s body into its constituent pieces: lips, hands, ears. Héloïse becomes less than the sum of her parts. Any image we do get of Héloïse’s painted face is promptly defaced: variously burned, smudged, and blackened as Marianne becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her craftsmanship for she’s unable to have direct access to her model (Figures 5 and 6). Yet, in the film’s second third, after Héloïse learns of Marianne’s painterly project, we’re given several false faces, that is, painted visages that respectively fail to capture Héloïse’s essence. “I can’t make you smile,” Marianne says, “I feel I do it and then it vanishes.” The elusiveness of Héloïse’s face is enacted cinematographically. So often is she seen only from the neck down or in profile looking away from the camera. Garments, mirrors, and the penumbral glow of fire all work to obscure her complexion (Figure 7). The viewer, like Marianna the painter, is denied access to Héloïse, whose “facelessness” is only accentuated by the fact that she’s played by the highly telegenic actress Adèle Haenel. Sciamma knowingly stymies our desire to see face.
This disavowal of face is a particularly transgressive one because so much of film history has pivoted on the opening up of the human face; physiognomy quickly became synonymous with cinema. In 1924, for example, the Hungarian cultural critic Béla Balázs theorized that the close-ups enabled by moving image technology allowed spectators to reconnect with the visual side of their identities that had been made illegible by print media. “The discovery of the printer had gradually rendered the human face illegible,” Balázs wrote, “People have been able to glean so much from reading that they could afford to neglect other forms of communication.”5 Before the advent of film, for Balázs, human culture was based on writing, a regime of communication that distanced us from facial and bodily recognition. The ability of film to magnify people onscreen, however, could make us “visible once again,” could make us sensitive to our own body language.6
The close-up allowed audiences to encounter the unique expressivity of the human face in all its latency and multiplicity. “Since film permits no psychological explanations [like a novel], the possibility of a change in personality must be plainly written on an actor’s face. . . .”7 The magnified human face becomes a legible surface of affect and meaning, a pure intensity that brings us into contact with the film experience for it infects us emotionally. The example on loop in Balázs’ head as he theorized the close-up in the 1920s was of Maria Falconetti’s torturously expressive face in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which was the first movie to harness seriously the aesthetic possibilities of the close-up. Falconetti projects a gamut of emotions – terror, resignation, hope, grief – via her elastic complexion that transforms our own viewing experience (Figures 8 and 9). It’s not by chance that Balázs uses the word “germ” to describe the infectiousness of close-ups. With Falconetti, the screen becomes a sur-face of emotion.
The close-up, in other words, brought us into contact with ourselves. It magnified the emotional inner world of human beings onscreen, inviting spectators to encounter the interplay of physiognomy and affect in palpable ways. The close-up is sensate and sensible; it makes sense because it has sense. It acts as a conduit of spectatorial empathy, identification, and (self-)recognition. The filmic face is a kind of mirror: our access point into character interiority. We project ourselves into onscreen experience by way of faces. So what happens when such access is impeded? When faces are literally erased as they are so frequently in Portrait of a Lady on Fire?
What’s striking about Sciamma’s latest film, which puts such a narrative emphasis on capturing faces, is its relative lack of close-ups. There are a few sprinkled throughout the film, but so many of its shots are of its heroines, who gradually become lovers, jointly occupying the frame. These close-but-not-too-close images of Marianne and Héloïse in matching outfits and hairstyles have a painterly quality that inevitably recall the tightly composed look-alikes of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1968), a film all about the self-reflective, mirrorlike potential of cinema (Figures 10, 11, and 12). Yet hardly any of the medium close-ups in Portrait of a Lady on Fire zoom-in further for extreme close-ups. Sciamma seems to be asking is it possible to get close without a close-up? Is it possible to have apprehension without understanding? Can we appreciate the experience of another without identifying with it? The most up-close-and-personal shots in Portrait of a Lady on Fire are a few of ears, fingers in armpits, and saliva clinging to lips. These intimate images draw us into a sensual appreciation, but they don’t ask for psychological identification. They give us portraits of embodied women without countenance, faceless close-ups.
The defaced faciality of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, then, affirms the singularity of its characters’ personal and sexual experiences. Sciamma continually distances her audiences from her heroines by denying access to their faces, thereby reiterating that Marianne and Héloïse’s stories are not our own. It’s a sharp retort from a queer woman filmmaker to another recent French coming-of-age movie about same-sex love that took pains to identify its heroines with its largely straight audience, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013), by way of explicit sex scenes (often shot in close-up), which its lead actresses have since criticized for catering to male viewers.8 Kechiche has recently been accused of sexual assault.9 To reflexively identify with another’s experience as one would his/her own mirror image is to claim it, to repossess it, to insert oneself into a stranger’s narrative without invitation. Facially obscured, Héloïse withholds a summons from entering her inner world in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Sciamma blocks the access habitually and unproblematically granted into female subjectivity onscreen. She lets her heroines enjoy their privacy, free from the overprotective gaze of Héloïse’s mother and our own inner eye.
It’s this sense of freedom that inspires a group of otherwise cooped-up women to perform a hauntingly ecstatic chant before a bonfire in a carnivalesque episode that would tonally be at home in Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019). Sciamma here revels in long-held tropes of women’s association with the dark arts and witchcraft as Héloïse’s dress magically bursts into flames (Figure 13). These women shed the mores of propriety to carouse at night, even if only for an instant. It’s after this literal portrait of a lady on fire that Héloïse lets Marianne make art out of her.
Indeed, only when Héloïse allows Marianne to have access to her face can a worthy portrait be produced. As Marianne relays back to Héloïse her mannerisms and facial features, an annoyed Héloïse says: “We’re in the same place.” She then orders Marianne to come out from behind her canvas, so she can describe her features. The painted talks back to the painter; Héloïse inverts the power dynamics of portraiture. The model, refusing “still life,” starts instructing the painter. Only after Héloïse establishes her own authority does she relax before the canvas, letting Marianna capture her contagious smile. “This time I like it,” Héloïse says. “Perhaps because I know you better,” Marianne responds. Héloïse negotiates how she will be represented on canvas and, in turn, onscreen; she curates her own image. Portrait of a Lady on Fire imbues the close-up with an ethics. Permission must be granted by the spectated before any sort of spectatorial identification can occur. The relationship between the looker and the looked-at should be one of mutual consent. It’s this code of mutuality that Marianne teaches her art students many years into the future where the film begins as she poses, instructing them how best to capture her. The model guides the artist’s hand.
A powerful shot toward the end of Portrait of a Lady on Fire perfectly captures Héloïse’s reclaimed agency. She’s seen standing on a shoreline, encircled by jetty rocks, and watching waves break with her back turned to the camera. This is an image of literal facelessness that replicates Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 portrait The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, which, in popular imagination, stands as a monument to the pensive and renegade male consciousness of European Romanticism (Figures 14 and 15). Besides replacing Friedrich’s wanderer with a woman, which itself would be a potent commentary on cultural constructions of gender, Sciamma recycles this image specifically because it recreates the stance of the artist gazing out onto the world. With Héloïse’s back toward Sciamma’s camerawoman, like Friedrich’s wanderer to the painter, Héloïse gives us a mise-en-abîme of portraiture. Her stance reenacts how paintings and movies are made: with the artist’s face defiantly set against viewers and trained onto roiling new horizons. The mirroring of Friedrich’s painting in Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a meta-portrait in motion that gives Héloïse the authority of the artist. She will determine how her likeness is committed to canvas.
This motif of who-gets-to-look-at-who is sustained in Portrait of a Lady on Fire through an extended metaphor of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, which Marianne and Héloïse read aloud together. Originally written by Virgil, the myth recounts how Apollo’s son, Orpheus, retrieved his wife Eurydice from the underworld by charming Hades with a song on the condition that, when escorting Eurydice out, he mustn’t look back at her. It’s a test of faith that Orpheus fails. He turns around only to see Eurydice be swallowed back into the underworld. For their part, Sciamma’s heroines reject the traditional reading of Orpheus and Eurydice as a parable against vanity and curiosity. Héloïse conjectures: “Perhaps Eurydice was the one who said: ‘turn around,’” while Marianne suggests that Orpheus made the “poet’s choice,” not the lover’s, in choosing a “memory of her.” These women complicate the position of the looked-at in Virgil’s tale. Though Eurydice condemns herself to Hades, she knows she’ll be preserved in Orpheus’ music. Eurydice, not Orpheus, decides how her memory will live on; she directs the gaze. Similarly, Marianne and Héloïse turn their gazes onto each other, consequences be damned, to create memories for canvases.
It is Héloïse, in the final scene, who plays the role of Orpheus, but again with a twist. She undertakes what he couldn’t; she does not look back. Years after their final encounter, Marianne spots Héloïse at a concert hall. She intently stares at her as Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto No. 2 G minor, otherwise known as “Summer” (L’estate), fills the space. The camera assumes Marianne’s gaze and slowly approaches Héloïse in the film’s only zoom shot. This film that obscured faces, ironically, ends with a close-up of Héloïse. It’s a shot that feels much more dramatic, knowing that Sciamma spent so much of Portrait of a Lady on Fire subverting and avoiding close-ups. Héloïse’s face variously contorts into expressions of apathy, pain, grief, and mirth – a rush of emotion that mirror Vivaldi’s frantic violins. Her mobile, highly expressive face channels Falconetti’s from The Passion of Joan of Arc. One shot of Héloïse tear-stained cheek looks like a direct citation (Figures 16 and 17). This extended take (the film’s longest) gives viewers a long look to appreciate Haenel’s raw telegenicity that heretofore had been withheld. A highly conventional close-up thus ends a highly unconventional film. The viewer is given access into Héloïse’s interior world without invitation. Sciamma’s conclusion, on the one hand, suggests that Héloïse has had to yield to her exceedingly conservative milieu of prerevolutionary France. She operates in a world that demands her face. Yet, on the other hand, Héloïse endures the pressure of Marianne’s gaze without capitulating. Unlike Orpheus, Héloïse looks ahead; she persists in the face of what could have been.
To conclude, with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma offers us an unexpectedly timely commentary on our present moment of social distancing, self-quarantines, and curfews. This film about cooped-up lovers, who turn to art to grapple with questions of visibility and facelessness, bears important lessons for us as we come to grips with our own isolation amidst pandemic, which will someday find its place on screens and canvases. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a seductively splendid work that acts as a balm for these trying times – a love story in the time of corona.
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All images are screenshots from the various films’ trailers or DVDs.
- Daniil Kharms, “Blue Notebook, No. 10,” trans. Robert Chandler, Rambling at the Bridge Head (accessed March 12, 2020): https://ramblingatthebridgehead.wordpress.com/2017/10/31/blue-notebook-no-10-by-daniil-kharms/. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Céline Sciamma, Interview with Emily Todd VanderWerff, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire Director Céline Sciamma on Her Ravishing Romantic Masterpiece,” Vox (Feb. 19, 2020): https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/2/19/21137213/portrait-of-a-lady-on-fire-celine-sciamma-interview. [↩]
- Sarah Keller, “Frustrated Climaxes: On Maya Deren’s ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ and ‘Witch’s Cradle,’ Cinema Journal 52.3 (Spring 2013): 77. [↩]
- Balázs, “Visible Man, or the Culture of Film,” 96. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid., 101. [↩]
- Marlow Stern, “The Stars of ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ on the Riveting Lesbian Love Story,” The Daily Beast (July 2017): https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-stars-of-blue-is-the-warmest-color-on-the-riveting-lesbian-love-story. [↩]
- Opheli Garcia Lawler, “Director of Blue Is the Warmest Color Accused of Sexual Assault” (Nov. 2018): https://www.thecut.com/2018/11/blue-is-the-warmest-color-director-accused-of-sexual-assault-abdellatif-kechiche.html. [↩]