Music plays a central role in Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, 2019), director Céline Sciamma’s masterful 2019 queer period romance. Or rather, the lack of it does. “I wanted the film not to have a score, which was kind of scary because making a love story without a score is pretty challenging,” she has said of her creative choices.1 Indeed, the soundtrack is entirely diegetic, consisting only of what the characters on-screen hear. The reason why she took this approach, she notes, is simple: she wanted the audience to have the same access to music, the same access to art, as her characters.2

By restricting her use of music, Sciamma heightens the effect when it does make itself heard in the film. There are two key moments: the emotional final shot, a powerful sequence set to the third movement of ‘Summer’ from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (earlier heard on harpsichord). And there is the film’s standout scene, about halfway through, in which a group of women’s voices coalesce around a fire, and the narrative reaches a turning point.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire begins with Marianne (Noémie Merlant), an art teacher in the 18 th century. When a student asks her about the titular portrait, the film flashes back to the water outside a remote island, home to Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a listless young woman whose mother is trying to marry her off. Marianne arrives by a rickety boat, engaged by the family to paint Héloïse’s portrait, which will act as a calling card for potential husbands. Following the death of her sister, Héloïse wants nothing to do with her mother’s plans, which forces Marianne to paint her surreptitiously. Soon, both painter and subject will fall for each other.

It’s an intriguing hook for a film, but the film abandons this narrative intrigue fairly early on. Will Marianne be found out? Who cares! Sciamma is interested in far deeper issues, including the access women have and are denied to art’s liberating possibilities, and the burning desire of romance.

But back to the singing. Marianne and Héloïse have accompanied Sophie, the house’s maid (Luàna Bajrami) because she seeks an abortion from one of the women there. While the women stand around the fire, the singing begins, and it has an immediately disorienting effect. This is the first time that sound has been introduced into the film without an obvious source, and Sciamma does not instantly reveal where it’s coming from. Only when the camera slowly pans to the fire do we see that the singing comes from the other women. They are singing and clapping to La Jeune Fille en Feu (The Young Woman On Fire), which was composed especially for the film.3 Surrounded by the women’s soaring voices, the soon-to-be-lovers eye each other across the crackling fire, before Héloïse’s dress catches fire. She collapses to the ground and Marianne grasps her arm. Sciamma maintains the gesture but jump cuts to the beach, and both women finally consummate their feelings for each other.

The sequence is part of the lovely freedom that falls upon the middle of the film, part of what critic Ela Bittencourt calls a “long, exquisite stretch,” where Marianne and Héloïse “do almost nothing but look at each other…”.4 There is a sense that the outside world – and the patriarchy – is far away from this island. But the near-total absence of men does not mean the patriarchy has been banished. Indeed, it shapes some of their choices, framing the ways in which the women can rebel. Witness an early interaction between Marianne and Héloïse’s mother. While the latter is marrying off her daughter, she wants to do so in Milan, so she can at least give her a life exposed to the excitement of music, art and the city.

Then there is the moment Marianne reveals her first portrait of Héloïse to her subject. Héloïse instantly hates it. “Is that how you see me?” She asks. Marianne replies that the portrait is not just the product of her vision, but that “rules, conventions, ideas” are also at play.

“You mean there’s no life?” Héloïse asks.

“Your presence is made up of fleeting moments that may lack truth,” Marianne responds, and Héloïse
replies that although she understands why it might not be a close representation of her, “the fact it
isn’t close to you makes me sad.”

It’s a simple, revealing exchange that depicts the conflation of the male-authored conventions of art with the truth. Both painter and subject know this portrait can never reveal the truth of Héloïse. It is distorted: firstly, by the work’s purpose (to attract a notable man to marry her, something she resists) and secondly because of the stifling conventions of portraiture generally. These “rules, conventions, ideas” might promise a safe harbour for Marianne to disguise her romantic feelings for Héloïse, but the promise is hollow. Her subject is perceptive enough to immediately cotton on.

So, the film seems to suggest, truth cannot be found in this first attempt at a portrait. But Portrait of a Lady on Fire offers alternatives. One comes after Sophie has her abortion. Both Marianne and Heloise accompany her for the procedure and Marianne looks away. Héloïse orders her to look, and the painter reluctantly turns her head to gaze back. Bearing witness is inherently political, both in terms of who gets to direct the gaze, and the subjects they choose to gaze upon. The point is emphasised when Sophie and Héloïse re-stage the scene for Marianne to paint. The work is so far outside the “rules, conventions, ideas” of the male-dominated art world that sent Marianne to this island that it authentically conveys truth.

Critic Ella Bittencourt argues that Héloïse’s order to Marianne to gaze at the abortion “suggests that art can be an act of solidarity—a meaningful encounter with another. But perhaps it also means that art cannot be truly great without risk, of breaking new aesthetic ground or of touching a raw nerve.”5 A simple, gentle pan – a throwaway moment, really – further completes the picture. Marianne and Héloïse’s time together has ended. We see a vase of wilted, decaying flowers, the camera panning to Sophie, who is capturing an idealised form of the flowers in needlepoint. Time has wrenched beauty from the flowers, and from the lovers’ experience of each other, but the beauty lives on thanks to artistic creation.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire suggests that artistic creation bestows dignity, both to subject and artist. Indeed, Sciamma’s film itself can be viewed in such terms. But it is also worth remembering what prompted Héloïse’s concerns at Marianne’s first portrait. Creating art according to predetermined conventions – historically, almost exclusively created by and for straight white men – can have the opposite effect, stripping dignity from the very subjects this process claims to revere.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019, France, 122 mins)

Prod co: Lilies Films, Arte France Cinéma, Hold Up Films Prod: Bénédicte Couvreur Dir: Céline
Sciamma Scr: Céline Sciamma Pho: Claire Mathon Ed: Julien Lacheray

Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajram, Valeria Golino, Christel Baras


  1. Amy Taubin, ‘Interview: Céline Sciamma’, Film Comment, volume 55 no. 6 (2019)
  2. ibid.
  3. Sciamma has said the song’s lyric, a Latin phrase, alludes to Nietzsche’s observation that ‘the higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who can’t fly’. Chris O’Falt, ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire Bonfire Scene: How Céline Sciamma Crafted the Year’s Best Musical Moment’, IndieWire (2020).
  4. Ela Bittencourt, ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire: Daring to See’, Criterion Collection <https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/6991-portrait-of-a-lady-on-fire-daring-to-see>.
  5. ibid

About The Author

Anders Furze is a Melbourne-based journalist and editor.

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