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As Orpheus led Eurydice out of Hades, why did he turn around to look for her just before getting out, and thus lose her forever? Was it because he made a poet’s choice that the memory of his love was enough, or was it perhaps Eurydice herself who called him to turn? The Greek myth is at the center of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival this year and had its U.K. premiere at the BFI London Film Festival. Sciamma was invited to speak about her career as a film director and screenwriter at the festival’s Screen Talk, and discussed further her latest film.
Set in 1760 Brittany, on the northern coast of France, Portrait of a Lady on Fire recounts a beautiful love story between two young women. The film explores the different steps from desire to love and then eventually how one lets go until this love becomes a memory.
The film opens in an art class, as a female tutor, Marianne (played by Noémie Merlant), teaches young female artists how to look at their subject in order to draw. Marianne is a young female artist, who learnt her trade from her artist father, painting portraits of the wealthy for a living. The title of the film is the title of a painting she made, which one of her students has taken up to their classroom. The painting depicts a female figure in a darkened background with her dress on fire. As Marianne gazes longingly at her painting, the film sets about to tell us who this mysterious figure is, and how this painting came about.
Marianne met the lady on fire when she was invited by a countess (played by Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter, Héloïse (played by Adèle Haenel), who has just come out of a convent after the death of her sister. The mother intends this portrait for her daughter’s betrothed who lives in Milan. As Héloïse refused to pose for the previous painter, the mother asks Marianne to pretend that she is a walking companion for her daughter, and to draw her from memory without Héloïse’s knowledge. Sciamma takes her time to reveal the face of Héloïse. Anticipation sets in, much like Marianne, who is eager to discover her subject.
However, cleverly, Sciamma does not make her protagonist fall in love with her subject on first sight, like so many films we have seen before. This is not the typical story of the painter falling in love, or lusting, over the image of the model. Marianne observes, scrutinizes Héloïse’s face, but fails her first drawing of her. The film suggests that desire between the two women does not begin when Marianne gazes at Héloïse to capture her every facial detail to memory. Desire rather starts when Héloïse returns her gaze. After Marianne reveals her real purpose, Héloïse agrees to pose for her. It is at that moment, as Héloïse sits for Marianne to paint her that desire rises between the two women.