Painting Words in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

“When you’re observing me, who do you think I’m observing?”

Reading visual language is impulsive and inclusive. Everyone, regardless of their background, picks up on things, little details which come together to form an unconscious impression. We automatically recognize what scenes and frames are trying to convey based on things like lighting, camera position, posture, and more. Often, these aspects have nothing to do with the literal plot, but they are still a complicated and significant form of information.

Let’s say a scene takes place in an old-fashioned diner, the kind where severs who call you ‘darlin’ serve pie. Two characters talk about a recent scandal in town, but they eventually decide that it isn’t their place to judge. That is technically what happens in the scene, but there is another layer of narrative going on. Let’s say that the lighting is especially sharp on one figure, leaving one in fluorescent tones and the other in shadow. The poster behind the shadowy figure shows a man waiting for a bus with a large suitcase. When the shadowed man talks about the woman involved with the scandal, the camera moves into an awkward angle, shooting down the figure’s forehead as though from the server’s perspective. We see these things and recognize that the shadowy figure comes from a different or even malicious perspective. He is in literal shadows, carries baggage, and wants to leave this conversation, much like the man with the bag in the poster.

Now this is just an example I made up, and it’s not exactly nuanced, but there are some extremely compelling and modern examples of visual language in film. The romance genre is especially prime for this kind of storytelling. I think it’s because the genre is driven by characters who cannot express themselves properly. Their loneliness and fear drive the film until the characters end up together or have some emotional resolution. However, because the characters don’t always say what they are thinking, their environment must do it for them.

I started this blog to close read the films I love, to expand on these details and try to understand the profound impressions that they leave. The frames that stay with me, that I find softly reflected in other movies, other conversations. Many films have a quiet relationship with visual language, as they present it, but they never declare it. I tend to favour films which are conscious and direct with this language, the kinds which consciously use it as another layer of information.

“Perhaps she was the one who said, turn around.”
[(Speaking about Orpheus and Eurydice]

My favourite recent example of this conscious evocation comes from the profound Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Its title alone is extraordinary. It’s like a painting, like some grand masterpiece found behind an old and rotting door with this little inscription at the bottom. The only way I can think to describe the film is that it moves through you. It breathes into its shots, leaving each with some quiet life and grandness, without being too exorbitant. Its about two women brought together but unable to stay together. They are confined by their era, a time where the very idea of them being together is blasphemous and can never be spoken. The film uses striking visuals to speak about this relationship and to convey the unspoken tension between these women. It’s extremely interested in the balance between truth and suppression, this middle ground where the women can express themselves in a safe way. In one shot, we see the two women kneeling on a beach, their mouths covered tightly with scarfs. It’s as though they are praying, immobilized, or mute. They look at the sea and then to each other, and although nothing else happens in the shot, it’s a profound and weighted image. Something is here, but neither the characters nor the film itself have the words or even the ability to speak of it.

“I’ve dreamt of that for years.”

I want to return to this film at some point and give it the attention it deserves, so for now, I will focus on one scene: the bonfire. It’s the reason the film is called Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and it defines everything about the women’s relationship and their world. For context, it’s late, and a group of women stand around a bonfire and chant. They start slowly, with one pair clapping, and then the next pair singing, and so forth. They create this pattern of pairs, each singing on top of one another, forging this frightening and loud hymn. They sing in Latin, and the film does not provide subtitles for their song, making it feel old and inaccessible. The women sing “they come fly”, which really summarizes the main conflict in the film. Both figures are pushed by society in a direction they do not want to go, but they still dream of flying away. Héloïse is being forced to marry the man her sister was betrothed to before she killed herself, and we later discover that she died to avoid getting married. She lives in this strange Bluebeard situation, as we never see her betrothed, but he is constantly associated with death. Héloïse must have a wedding portrait before she can wed, and she keeps destroying paintings to stop the marriage. Marianne is commissioned to paint a portrait without Héloïse realizing, and so she pretends to be Héloïse’s new companion. She tries to memorize Héloïse’s face when they go for walks and have short conversations, and every night, she tries to remake that face on her canvas.

Just as Marianne studies Héloïse as though she is already a painting, the film asks us to study its characters and setting in the same manner. For example, the bonfire scene is entirely silent except for the chanting, and that stops very abruptly when Héloïse catches on fire. It only returns when Héloïse falls to the ground, as though the image of her on fire was holy. Right before this moment, Marianne looks across the fire at Héloïse and the two smile, Héloïse looking slightly afraid of the chanting happening around them. Neither Marianne nor Héloïse join in, yet the chant becomes tied to their interaction. Just as one stanza ends and another begins, we cut back and forth between the characters. And then we get this longer shot of Héloïse’s entire figure as she walks away from the fire but brings it with her. She looks straight into the camera, towards Marianne, and frames herself perfectly in the midground without once looking down. Her hands are pressed against her stomach, held in a quintessential portrait position. Her body is turned slightly, while her head is at the very center of the frame. Héloïse stands there for a few seconds as the fire kneads her skirt, and when she notices, she looks down and then back up as though she doesn’t care. When two women rush towards her, entering the unmoving frame from the right, they cover the flames with blankets and tackle her to the ground. She doesn’t move or struggle, instead she lies down with her face in the sand.

We then cut to a shocked Marianne, who looks confused and afraid of what she has just seen. For a moment, the environment shaped itself into a portrait, or better still, Héloïse shaped herself into a portrait, and that agency is crucial to the film. This moment likewise collapses the camera frame onto the canvas, making both purely artistic but also extremely symbolic. The film asks us to read its frames with the same quality, attention, and respect we give to a work of art in a museum.

These few seconds say an incredible amount about Héloïse’s character. Her non-expression towards the fire implies that she has always been on fire, now she is just literally so. She is not surprised about the flames, it seems like she would let them rise and burn her, like some mistrailed witch. Her life and emotions are already dangerous, and so this additional danger means nothing to her.

“I didn’t know you were an art critic.”

This image of Héloïse on fire dominates the film even before you watch it. It’s the name of the movie, but it’s on multiple posters. The title is also quite telling, as its wording returns to a classic painterly tradition, not a filmic kind. Wedding portraits of that era are extremely common, and they have a secret language. Women are positioned in a specific pose and surrounded by symbols which inform the viewer that the subject’s family is wealthy, and that the subject is an ideal wife. Hands on stomach, turned slightly, rich fabrics, light colours, these are common in wedding portraiture. The quintessential image in Portrait of a Lady on Fire has some of these features, but it also changes this symbolic language. If a portrait is meant to convey a subject’s class and state of mind, this conveys her strong emotions but also the danger associated with those emotions. The dark background further highlights Héloïse, as she is the only figure in light, singled out in the darkness and looking out.

It’s noteworthy that although we see from Marianne’s perspective, we don’t cut to her during this moment, so it feels like Héloïse is looking right at us. This puts us in two positions, as we first see Héloïse in a narrative sense, and then as a painter. Initially, it seems like Héloïse might say something to Marianne, and so we expect the scene to have some narrative significance. But she doesn’t, and by the time she is so perfectly framed, we are in a different position. We see her not just as a viewer looking at a painting, but as an artist installing a frame on a person. But she is still moving around, as are the flames, which means that she is not a painting yet. The fact that she looks like a painting is on us. We are the artist finding meaning in some synchronous moment, making mental notes about it, and wondering about colours and positions instead of Héloïse being in danger. That is essentially what the film does, its visual language involves the viewer. Because it’s characters can’t speak freely, they bury their voices in the scene and frame, and the viewer is left to interpret and render these nuances into something meaningful.

“I didn’t know you were a painter.”

The film’s title calls this moment Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and every word in that title is significant. I’ve already mentioned that the word ‘portrait’ comes with gendered baggage, but so does each word here. Take the ‘a’. The title does not identify it’s subject, which is the opposite of what you want in a wedding portrait, which is about a specific person or family. However, this ‘a’ reflects what many art scholars come across, as we have lost the names of so many female subjects because they were considered less important than their husbands, whose portrait still have names. It feels like the ambiguity of ‘a Lady’ relates to this absence. She could be any Lady, and her fiery pose, calm in a moment of destruction, could be any woman’s. Then there is the word ‘Lady’, as her class is the only thing which identifies her. It doesn’t matter that she is outside and away from her wealthy house in this scene, she can’t escape being a Lady. Her class follows her around, and it is more important than she will ever be. The chanting directly refers to this patriarchal imprisonment, as the women chant “they come fly” as though Héloïse’s fiery moment is the only flight she will ever have. Héloïse is just one of many wealthy Ladies in this position, and arguably, she stands for any Lady, even those who are just ladies (commoners) instead of a titled Lady.

There is a reason the film features primarily women, as the men are absent, but their patriarchal systems are still domineering. When Héloïse’s skirt catches on fire, the chanting lifts for a moment, and then returns, as though this terrifying and freeing image was evoked by the women’s song. And that brings me to the last section in the film’s title: “on fire”. It’s in present tense, which suggests that the subject will always be on fire, frozen in this pose. It also implies that there is nothing which can extinguish her flames, as she will always be in this situation.

This scene is just one example of how these women use visual language to communicate, it’s how they understand what is happening between them. I will not spoil the film here, suffice to say that the film ends with a powerful declaration to this quiet yet powerful visual language. In a world where women’s voices are constantly moderated, visuals are the only way to speak honestly. And considering the actual art emerging from that era, and the decided lack of female painters, this film speaks volumes. It is not that women did not paint, more that their art was constantly controlled, devalued, and dismissed by popular and male dominated culture. But in that dismissal, women like Héloïse and Marianne found ways to express themselves, ways which men would not notice because they were not paying attention. This film asks us to pay attention, to read closely, and to analyze this relationship as though it was art. To take back the symbolic visual system implemented by male artists, and to make something profound from it.