When Céline Sciamma‘s fourth film Portrait of a Lady on Fire screened at Cannes in 2019, it made quite an impact, and quite rightly so. There are many elements worthy of praise, but the performances of Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel and its script are two of the reasons for its success. Both amalgamate to create a feeling of desire that allows the audience to empathise with what unfolds.
For anyone unfamiliar with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it follows Marianne (Merlant), a painter who receives a commission to paint Héloïse (Haenel), a high society woman, who against her wishes is to be married off to a Milanese nobleman. Marianne acts as Héloïse’s companion to paint her because she has previously refused to pose for portraits due to her intense desire not to marry.
Like most love affairs, desire does not generally arise from the first kiss but often before direct interaction with a partner. Desire grows when we learn more about our partner, and we begin to find certain behavioural traits and interests alluring. Portrait of a Lady on Fire demonstrates this superbly. Héloïse eventually learns Marianne has been hired to paint her and so agrees to pose for Marianne. In one particular scene, where Marianne is painting Héloïse, the pair exchange dialogue, describing one another’s actions when either feels a specific emotion. It shows how observant each character has been of one another, and perhaps how these behaviours are not only noticeable, but how both Marianne and Héloïse find each other fascinating.
The importance of shared interests in a relationship has been well documented and discussed. Portrait of a Lady on Fire shows how sharing a love of something brings us closer together, strengthening our desire for each other. A scene that epitomises this in the film is when Marianne discovers that Héloïse has never heard orchestral music. Marianne plays the harpsichord for Héloïse, and as Marianne plays and describes the first movement of Winter from Vivaldi‘s The Four Seasons, Héloïse is captivated by the music and Marianne. Héloïse watches Marianne’s hands and gazes at her face with such intrigue that the audience empathises with her. Through Héloïse’s enjoyment, she learns something new about something she already loves, and the smile on her face exhibits that she is delighted with Marianne for showing her the music.
The desire between the two protagonists in Portrait of a Lady on Fire becomes compelling in part because gender roles are not predominant in their love story. Portrait of a Lady on Fire does not rely on the conventional dynamic between a man and a woman, and because of this, it offers a new emotional journey that allows desire to become more prominently expressed.