What is it about blondes that make them seem so… doomed? Consider Kim Novak’s golden spiral of a bun in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo as her character, Madeleine, gazes at a painting that eerily resembles her while a private detective (James Stewart) tails her around San Francisco—a job that turns into his personal obsession. Twenty-two years later, in 1980, Brian De Palma would pay homage to this shot in Dressed to Kill, as a platinum blonde (Angie Dickinson) sits on a museum bench before engaging in mutual act of flirt-stalking with a stranger—a decision that will lead to her violent death the next day.
The first time we meet Adèle Haenel’s Héloïse in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, we see only the back of her head—a messy blond bun—before she starts sprinting toward the edge of a cliff, calling to mind the fatal plunge into the San Francisco Bay at the climax of Vertigo. Jump she does not, although it’s a legitimate concern: Héloïse’s older sister has recently fallen off that very cliff and died (an act suspected to be suicide), and Héloïse has inherited her sister’s arranged marriage to a wealthy Milanese man she’s never met and knows nothing about. This is late-18th-century France, when marriage proposals were arranged and finalized via painted portraits (this was pre-Tinder, after all) delivered to potential suitors. But the stubborn Héloïse refuses to pose for such a painting, leading her mother to covertly hire an artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), under the guise of a walking companion to watch after Héloïse in the wake of her sister’s death. Marianne is instructed to observe the rebellious lady during the day and paint her from memory at night. Héloïse, though she has no reason to study Marianne, returns her attention with equal ardor.
Whereas Héloïse’s gaze is all wide-eyed and inquisitive, Marianne’s is piercing. Hers is a gaze familiar to stories about repressed lesbian lovers but with much more intensity, as it is a stare on double duty. You might think at first of Todd Haynes’s Carol, all read-between-the-lines looks. But Marianne’s stare has another layer to it: the scrutiny of a painter. Is her observant look that of someone falling in love or of an artist simply doing her job? Even when we know the answer—technically, it’s both—the ambiguity adds a level of scintillating pleasure. In a brief conversation with Merlant, the actress told me that rather than getting trained in painting, she was trained in nailing that very look: how an artist observes her subject. The casting here is on point; Merlant is an actress whose eyes are especially striking. With her gaze, Marianne not only returns Héloïse’s curiosity but commits to memory their time together—brief but never to be forgotten.
This is a film that not only mostly eliminates the male gaze (it was also shot by a woman cinematographer, Claire Mathon) but also reduces male speaking parts to just a few lines. (When a man shows up by the end of the film and speaks, it is hilariously jarring.) Whether the Hitchcockian blond damsel reference was intentional, Sciamma’s non-machismo vision is decidedly different; her protagonists’ doom does not involve death and doppelgängers, but rather that which is suffered in private—a very feminine fate. There’s also a narrative metaphor that runs throughout the film, of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The characters in Portrait discuss how Orpheus looks back, dooming his lover to death in the underworld. Why did he turn around? they ask, and Marianne suggests that maybe Eurydice called out to him, dooming herself with the final image of her love. It is a far more romantic point of view than the norm, an interpretation that actually accounts for Eurydice’s feelings on the matter, and the inclusion of this myth helps to give autonomy to the female characters. This motif appears in Portrait a few more times, most notably when Marianne, prompted by Héloïse, turns around as they say goodbye. By overlaying a seemingly standard farewell scene with such a dramatic life-or-death moment, Portrait weights their parting with the grandness of tragedy.
Marianne’s artistic observations eventually meld with her personal desires, and after her first attempt at a portrait of Héloïse, she destroys the perfectly serviceable result. Was she dissatisfied with it as an artist? Was she offended that Héloïse wasn’t flattered by the depiction? Or did she simply want to buy more time with the lady? Again, the answer is easy enough to discern (a combination of all three), but the story is once more served by ambiguous motives. Héloïse then surprisingly agrees to sit for a portrait, and during these sessions their feelings for each other rise to the surface, sealed with a saliva-stringed kiss—previously a cinematic symbol for faux lesbianism and trickery (Cruel Intentions), here made genuine.
What follows is a few days of bliss while Héloïse’s mother is out of town. The two are no longer repressing their passion but rather the reality of a near future in which Héloïse will be married to someone else. Something wonderful happens in the privacy of a space in which two young women are left unattended by the matriarch who usually controls them, as social structures and heterosexual norms begin to crumble. Héloïse and Marianne help Sophie (Luana Bajrami), the maid, with her abortion; the three attend a witchy bonfire (it’s here that the lady in question titularly combusts); and the lovers experience a brief moment of psychedelics-induced liberation.
The story is quite simple, but it brims with desire. Sciamma could have relied on the strength of that alone. But at times the film falters, with its overdetermined, almost corny visual choices. I don’t mean the literal interpretation of the lady on fire (however you may feel about that) or Héloïse’s anachronistic painting style (which features rather modernist brushwork); it can, however, veer at times into the unintentionally comical. One scene in particular is burned into my brain: the lady lying naked with a circular mirror placed over her, um, lady parts and Marianne’s face reflecting back in it. The film returns to form at the end, as the epilogue brings us back to the bare-bones emotion that made it so resonant in the first place. Marianne spots Héloïse, one final time, at a concert hall during a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, music that she had played for Héloïse in the past. Marianne had performed it on a harpsichord, sparsely and imperfectly but affectingly. This time, the music is lush and professionally performed, but it only underscores the emptiness she feels as a result of their separation. Marianne’s gaze remains piercing, but Héloïse, unlike Orpheus, does not look back to see her sitting so close by. And unlike Eurydice, the two lovers here live on.