Sunday 5 January 2020

Portrait de la jeune fille en feu

We're in the same place. Exactly the same place. 
Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter and daughter of a painter, is sent to a remote island off the coast of Brittany to draw a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which is to be sent to Milan for inspection by a possible suitor. Héloïse must be kept in the dark about the plot, as she has destroyed a previous painting of her, and so Marianne is presented as a companion to watch over Héloïse, a task that becomes more obviously essential after the death of her sister, who perhaps fell or perhaps jumped off the cliffs after being promised to the same man who is now awaiting the new portrait. Héloïse is unsure which it was, except her sister never called out before disappearing over the edge. 
Marianne’s task is difficult, since she must steal moments with her subject and scribble her impressions in secrecy, somehow assembling a full portrait from the bits and pieces she is able to collect, as well as Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), a maid, standing in so she can see how the dress would fall. The completion of the portrait becomes more difficult when Marianne’s impressions of the other woman gained from their time together begins to diverge from what she is painting – the more closely she begins to have a sense of Héloïse’s desire for freedom, which she cannot achieve because the only way off the island is through marriage, the less the composite on the canvas matches her. Attempting to make the portrayed woman more agreeable by following the conventions of portraiture, she ends up looking nothing like Héloïse, containing none of her spirit and rage over her imprisonment. 

In the end, Marianne finds herself unable to keep up the pretence, and reveals herself to Héloïse, who is also unhappy with the finished portrait, and perhaps would like for Marianne to stick around a little longer, and share more of her free life with her. More than that, there few moments together betrayed a growing intimacy and mutual fascination, Héloïse with Marianne’s claim to a kind of life that she cannot imagine a woman leading, and Marianne with Héloïse’s ferocious sense of wanting more than is given to her. In a crucial scene before the reveal, Marianne attempts to explain orchestral music to someone who has previously only heard music played by an organ in a church, trying to capture the beauty by playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on a harpsichord for her. Marianne destroys her first attempt, and is given a few more days to finish a second, while Héloïse’s mother travels. Thus, a short period of freedom is achieved. 

This is also a complete turning point for this film, and not just in the sense of suddenly allowing Marianne and Héloïse the freedom to fall in love with each other as equals (Héloïse explains to Marianne, once she begins to sit for her portrait, that what Marianne is painting is as much a portrait of her as it is of the painter, whom the subject of the painting regards, and learns to know just as well as the other way around). As soon as the mother leaves, it isn’t just the distance between Marianne and Héloïse that breaks down into an even closer intimacy, but also the class difference between the two of them and Sophie, the maid. Almost immediately, Sophie becomes an equal to them as well, and the week they spend together alone in the house looks like a utopia of women leaving freely together, without being bound by conventions of structures that would limit their freedom or put them into an economic hierarchy. Instead, they help Sophie obtain an abortion, Marianne after being given permission taking the opportunity to sketch something that is real, and far from anything that she would have otherwise been permitted to paint. The goal of their togetherness becomes a sort of truthfulness to life, an escape from the limits imposed on them. They read Ovid’s Metamorphoses together, attempting to understand Orpheus’ decision to turn back and cast his beloved Eurydice back into the underworld, and coming to the conclusion that he took an artist’s stance attempting to preserve forever in his memory what is doomed to die eventually anyway. It’s both a beautiful and a harrowing interpretation considering what is playing out between Héloïse and Marianne, because the great piece of art that Marianne is creating, the one that will now capture Héloïse in all truthfulness, without lying about its subject, is what will enable the marriage which will inevitably trap Héloïse in a life that she did not choose, because other options are not open to her (whereas Marianne’s father has made an unconventional life possible for her by teaching her a trade and bestowing his reputation upon her). Héloïse is being preserved forever, sacrificing a lifetime with a woman she loves, but also captured truthfully for the ages. As their romance plays out, the spectre of Héloïse’s marriage begins to haunt the house, to remind Marianne that only the art that they are creating together (creating together as an equal cooperation, rather than a hierarchical relationship between painter and object) will outlast this time spent together. Thus, the moments they share burn into Marianne’s mind, and become inspiration for her artistic life going forward. In the first scene of the film, we see an older Marianne teaching her students, who have discovered a stored painting of one of the most memorable moments that the two women have shared, when they attended a village feast and Héloïse’s dress briefly caught on fire – the literal fire to the symbolic one that attracted Marianne in the first place, which are both referred to in the title. 
At the end of their time together, they must part suddenly, without being granted the grace of a true goodbye. Marianne, recounting, shows us the two times that she saw Héloïse again – once, in gallery into which she had smuggled one of her own paintings, under her father’s name, in which she found another true portrait of Héloïse, who appears with her daughter – but also with her finger bookmarking Metamorphoses, on the page in which Marianne left her a portrait. It’s a secret message for eternity to mark the impact of their romance, its constancy through time in spite of their tragic circumstances. The second time, Marianne sits across from Héloïse at a performance of Four Seasons, watching her steal away from the life she did not choose, to be deeply moved by the music that Marianne shared with her. 

2019, directed by Céline Sciamma, starring Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino.

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