Tread lightly: Spoilers for Portrait of a Lady on Fire ahead.
Yes, if you know me at all, you knew this was coming. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is, in my humble opinion, a perfect masterpiece of a film. But, I wanted to dive deeper into it than just surface level. For those of you who don't know, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a feature period drama/romance set in 18th century France about a woman (Heloise) coping with loss and loneliness is betrothed to a man in Italy who she does not know, and a painter (Marianne) is called upon to paint her portrait in secret as a gift to the man in question. Heloise must be painted in secret due to the fact that she refuses to pose as an act of defiance as she does not support the marriage, nor the idea of it. So, this means Marianne must be her walking companion daily, not as a friend, but to memorize features of her face and paint her without her knowing when in solitude. On the surface, it does seem like a very simple premise. And it might be, but the execution is unlike anything you've ever seen before; and is therefore worthy of discussion.
The Portrait team remarked on how the weather cooperated which helped with the interior lighting as well as exterior
A very important aspect of Portrait is its authenticity. Writer/director Celine Sciamma genuinely wanted the film to be as grounded and as real as possible, while also seeming modern. Although set in the 18th century, Celine wanted the film to feel timely and relevant even in 2019/2020. The dresses were crafted with care and attention to feel accurate to the time period and true to the characters. It can be seen in the film later on that the characters utilize pockets in their dresses as well. This might also seem modern, which it is, but this was accurate to the time period and the crew made sure this was checked for factual accuracy of that era. Additionally, she did not want fake hair for the actors as is often found in other period dramas. Celine also ensured that the paintings were also researched to stay true to the style of that time, which I will dive deeper into later. Adding to the authenticity, much of the film is shot using natural light. This opened up a plethora of possibilities for shooting throughout the course of the film as a good majority is set in the daytime. The film at times did have to turn to synthetic lighting, but a good portion used natural lighting which offered plenty of advantages, for interior and exterior shots alike. Which brings me to my next point.
The cinematography of Portrait, even if you've only seen stills of the film, is absolutely breathtaking. It was widely debated whether they should shoot using film or digital. Eventually, they agreed upon digital, and the decision was made to shoot it in beautiful 8K. This allowed them to achieve shots they otherwise could not have in using film. Shooting on digital also gave this film the modern feel as mentioned before, as shooting on film would give the feeling of the time period; which would offer benefits of its own. However, the final shot of Portrait (spoilers) could not have been achieved using film. The slow zoom on Heloise's face, and to see the emotion and tears could only be captured using the 8K digital camera. Additionally, the colors popped a lot more using this method of shooting in many different scenes of the film. Not just capturing the beautiful scenery of Brittany, France, but also the glow of their skin, the colors of the outfits, the backgrounds, and textures they were hoping to accentuate.
In addition to natural light, certain scenes were also filmed in candle light. These shots were difficult to achieve, as the candles did not provide enough lighting. The fireplace often provided too much lighting, so the team had a bitch of a time trying to get the lighting exactly right. What they ended up doing was using a combination of the candle light, LED lights using a light boom with LED ribbons on ropes, and tungsten bulbs for warmth. The lenses they used were not very sensitive and therefore an extra touch was needed to light the characters and the environment enough to be seen. The cinematographer had also noted using a wider aperture at night.
The cinematography of the film is also very intimate. Not in a voyeuristic way, but it highlights their relationship, which is the emotional core of the film. Since the story is very contained, we feel that with the characters and the way that it's shot. We feel their loneliness, their secludedness (is that a word?) on the island. Seclusion. Whatever. Anyway, the cinematographer and director Celine remarked on how much of the film is shot/reverse shot. Meaning, we see Marianne as she gazes upon Heloise, the canvass, and vice versa. Shot/reverse shot can become boring or stale, as it's overused in many films we're familiar with. However, the way in which Portrait uses this method is different. Their relationship, in many ways, is built upon how they view each other. In their stares, their gaze, how they look on with admiration, or simply for Marianne to memorize the features of Heloise's face. This also proves important thematically as the film deals with memory/remembrance. The two lovers want to keep each other locked away in their memory as they're aware this romance cannot last. They'll keep pieces of each other through the art, but also in the ways they look upon each other's faces, to keep their images burned in their minds for as long as they live.
The piece which inspired the destruction of the first painting.
The death of this piece brings life to a newer (and better) painting.
Noemie Merlant, the woman who plays Marianne, was obviously not called upon to paint the masterpiece within the masterpiece (although, that would have been cool). So, Celine stumbled upon the true painter behind the painting of Heloise (Adele Haenel) on Instagram. She found Helene Delmaire who actually had painted a piece that inspired the scene where Marianne destroys the first painting of Heloise after being roasted by her for not putting her true feelings and passion behind it, but rather only conventions of art and painting. Heloise sees it, and thinks "yes, this is pretty and you fall into the conventions of art and painting, but is this how you actually see me?" It's tough that she doesn't smile until the latter half of the film, but more prowess and feeling is on display when she's portrayed as happier and when they fall for each other. Their relationship blossoms and blooms, just as the painting did (spoilers). A seemingly small moment, but a pivotal, emotional, and character-building moment. Which then, features a humorous scene to follow in which Heloise and her mother find the painting with her face smudged. These paintings can be seen on the left. When Celine had found Helene, she was searching for a contemporary artist, not a copyist. But Helene did remark upon researching 18th century style painting on her own, because her studies in an old fashioned studio in Florence did not teach this. What made this research interesting (and difficult), much of the female art was largely forgotten or lost in history. There's no trace of a good majority of depictions by female artists/painters of that time.
In fact, the researching got so deep as using the right canvass accurate to that time period. Helene had mentioned they used smooth, blurry, fine grain, rabbit skin glue with white primer and umber for just the right feel on the canvass to make it accurate to what was used in the 18th century. She used brush strokes, neutral colors, natural skin colors, charcoal to sketch the outline (for easier erasing), diluted colors, fill in the face, halftones, adjust hues and colors as needed once everything is in place, glaze technique, transparent layers, shimmers between layers, reddish cheekbones, apply another layer on top to achieve subtle effects, ultramarine blue, scarlet red for lips, and sanguine technique. Whatever all that means. We see these techniques play out on-screen. She also used three pencil technique for the sketching scenes. Marianne is always carrying around a sketchbook and three pencils, which they felt was true to the time and character.
When the actors were done after a given scene, Helene was called upon to do the painting. Helene remarked upon only being able to paint for 27 minutes at a time. She had to have a certain part of the painting ready for a specific part of the filming. Fun fact, crew members became tired from watching her work, putting them in a lull often times. Fun for us, tough for them.
Portrait of Helene Delmaire (not on fire, she's fine)
Adele Haenel as 'Heloise'
Adele Haenel who plays Heloise is actually a frequent collaborator with Celine Sciamma in her films. In fact, they were engaged in a romantic relationship shortly after filming Water Lillies and was publicly announced in 2014 after Sciamma received her Cesar award in filmmaking. The two have split up since then, however they remain on good terms as artistic collaborators. Adele Haenel is also a famous actress in France and was a big draw to many for this film. On the other hand, Noemie Merlant was familiar with both of their work, but had not met them until casting. Celine worked closely with casting and made sure she was brought on for the film. All Adele needed was to read the pristine script, and she was in. The script was also written with Adele Haenel in mind, according to writer/director Celine Sciamma.
The fact that Adele and Noemie had not met in person prior to this film actually worked in their favor. Much like the characters in the film, the two tried to get a read on each other and made their experience that much more intriguing. As the two built chemistry, the acting and the story became easier and easier to tell and to portray. Adele described the two acting as "sparring" and there was a sort of space, a spark and tension between them which made it more interesting to peel back those layers. The two never even rehearsed together, they just jumped right in. The two had eventually formed a collaboration of sorts, they watched each other manage their emotions, and had a respect for their intensity and sincerity. Their looks and delivery of lines would surprise each other, and made each other blush at times through their acting.
Noemie had mentioned that Adele would "overact" at times since most of the acting was in their expressions, the way they looked and stared at each other; which begged a sort of finesse out of them and at times, overexpression. Much of it was observing the painter, capturing her gaze, which made for concrete and alive performances. They used words like "concentrated" and even "mystical." Noemie also described it as a sort of "dance" the painter does between the model and the canvass. This made for an interesting dynamic. Noemie worked on the dance to make it as real and as alive as possible. There was a magic to the environment on set, as described by Adele and Noemie. They had to prepare a certain way for a period piece at the risk of sounding cliché. But, as stated before, they felt they were doing a postmodern way of creating it which made it different enough to cut away from the mold. They had a hard time making sense of the modern approach to a period piece, but they were excited about the challenge and had fun with it.
The two also mentioned that enunciating syllables was important since there was so much focus on their dialogue and interactions. The film is mostly visually driven, however, when there was a line of dialogue, they had to ensure it was delivered in the most effective way possible. They said there was an emphasis on a different tempo and modulations to what they were saying at times. They prepared for ideas and how the characters evolve throughout the story. There are cracks in the veil or mask which reveal intimacy and vulnerability. This had to be done slowly, gradually, and it was effective through the film's deliberate pacing. They reveal more of themselves until they reached a state of warmth between each other. The last phase of the film was looser, more spontaneous, and the emotions stronger. The camera hangs on them, their touch, intimacy, and interaction and tracks them throughout.
Noemie Merlant as 'Marianne'
The goal was to look at the subject of the two and their relationship. Often times, when dealing with a woman in any relationship, the woman or women can be objectified. In this case, their love is the subject and is heightened, brought to the fore. A sisterhood is formed, and a bonding is revealed. We feel the marriage is coming, so there is a tension to that. There are no social classes or hierarchy, the women are equals. Patriarchal themes are in the background as we know their lives are dictated by this arranged marriage, but no men are seen for 95% of the film. The sisterhood transcended this. Sophie, the servant, didn't just exist in the background as she had issues of her own. Heloise's mother, similarly, had struggles of her own as well. The sister we do not see did end her own life for the same reason, she's to be married off against her will before her untimely death. But, as we know, the focus is on the gradual connection between Heloise and Marianne.
They share intimate scenes together and they share them as equals. There is no dominant male over the woman who has to shed her clothes out of some contract, instead, the two share the intimate scene because the film had been building to it in an organic way, and they wanted to. Adele and Noemie remarked on how they were not embarrassed by the sex scene, in fact, they had enjoyed it. They mentioned the stresses of past sex scenes. This was not gratuitous, as it often is in other seemingly mandatory, inauthentic, and contrived sex scenes we've all seen in other inferior films. The two actors felt they were in charge as opposed to male gaze-y scenes they had done in the past. Instead of over-ritualization, they felt there was a humor to it at times. It was their meaning of intimacy and what it meant to them. It embodied their relationship as a whole. It was about creativity, what makes ideas erotic, and there was a certain sort of collaboration to that. A vision of women. Although it's a period piece, they felt it resonated today. The duality and the juxtaposition of a period piece and modernity.
"Creating art to disrupt reality."
Remember when I said this was a 'modern' period piece that resonates today? They're social distancing AND wearing masks. So very 2020 of them.
Portrait of a Portrait
I hope that after reading this, you either have a greater appreciation for the film, or that you want to see it for a first time. I'm sorry if I spoiled stuff, but I did warn you from the top. Anyway, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not just one of my favorite films of 2019, it's also one of the best, most beautiful films I've ever seen and one of my all-time favorites. I'm sure the fact that I just wrote a whole article about it tells you exactly that.
Go see this gorgeous film if you haven't already.
If you have, see it again.