Portrait of a Woman on Fire Celine Sciamma (Fr; 2020) Noemie Merlant; Adele Haenel
viewed Tyneside Cinema Newcastle 3rd March 2020; ticket £10.75
Celine Scammer’s feminist panegyric, Portrait of a Woman on Fire, comes with heavyweight literary precursors. Its title and ambiance surely reference the Henry James novel, Portrait of a Lady, and Sciamma’s characters, Heloise and Marianne symbolise eponymous resonant female progenitors.
Heloise was a Medieval epistemologist, scholar, wife of Abelard, whose belles lettres are regarded as the first of the French female literary voices. Nun mother and wife, she is strongly associated with Isles off Brittany where celebrated in song and dance, memory of her presence has elided into that of a shaman. Marianne is of course the personification of post revolutionary France, emblem of a certain faded modernity, ready to be reinvigorated as a feminist icon.
Henry James’ novel Portrait of a Lady, follows its protagonist Isabel Archer’s determination to persue her own destiny. She is not betoken to the influences and manipulations of convention status or class. Isabel is of course not successful in avoiding the social machinations set to trap her, but she retains her complete independence of spirit. Life is lived on her terms. Likewise Sciamma’s Heloise is an intellectual imbued with a pride in her own independence; she is also the object of a relentless manipulation, to which she succumbs. But even in her succumbing she retains the spirit of her selfhood, a spirit captured by Sciamma in a shot, repeated three times, in which Marianne sees Heloise resplendent in her white ‘wedding’ gown, triumphant as ‘bride’. A shot which is emblematic not of her earthly fate but of her spiritual fate, a personal overcoming of the social fabric.
The whole movie is shot in a manner that flaunts its impeccable literary credentials. It is a camera of detached painterly observation. Some shots in particular of the servant girl, called to mind Vermeer (Portrait of a Girl with a Pearl Earing sic.), and Marianne’s ‘vision of Heloise’ has a pre-Raphaelite quality. The camera tracks pans tilts through colour and form, comes to rest in composition. In her framing Sciamma suggests a world of surfaces a world only seen through the images presented, a world of Gainsborough portraits.
But if Sciamma’s intention is to work against surface she creates, to crack it open and reveal what lies beneath, forbidden passion, pain, then she underestimates the strength and resilience of the way in which she has chosen to actually film her scenario. All the scripted elements seem contained by the physical surface tensions of the movie. The passion between Marianne and Heloise, the background feminist elements of menstruation and the abortion by the maid, all feel de-intensified artifices somehow alien to the studied observational design of the film. With its deliberately modulated cinematography, the emotions unleashed by the situations all blend together, merge into the cameras detached beautifully colourised imagery. Everything defaults to the tasteful keying of the painterly lens. Outside of Marianne’s vision of a transfigured Heloise, there are no moments of rupture or when the film stops. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an homogenous experience, ultimately the uniformity of construction becomes monotony, the film subsumed in blandness. This is a quality not characteristic of the James novel.
The Henry James novels are on the surface in narrative terms, chaste. But the underlying intensity of James’ prose creates situations densely packed with erotic charge, all the stronger for never being discharged. A literary almost unbearable coitus interruptus characterises scenes in James’ novellas such Inside the Cage and A Turn of the Screw. Sciamma is a product of a literalist age in which we have to see people pissing menstruating in case we didn’t know about or understand these things.
Restraint is a a rarely exercised artistic choice in contemporary films, in particular when writers directors feel the need to make statements of their credentials, so of course Sciamma choses to have her love affair consummated for the camera. But if you consider a classic film with a similar plot mechanism, Michael Curtiz’ Casablanca, it works with effect because Bogart and Bergman don’t make out physically. The tensions of erotic interplay in Casablanca, as in James novels, are the forces that define and deliver.
By delivering Marianne and Heloise into the physical realm, Sciamma makes a politically correct statement, but works against the grain of her own material. Her film that is not so much Portrait of a Lady on Fire, as Portrait of a Lady who gets Everything. In tune with the times.