This story contains spoilers for Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
In the week before she sets her clothing ablaze, Héloïse (played by Adèle Haenel), the titular character in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is a reluctant subject. When Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives to paint her, the artist is informed that she must do so without Héloïse ever knowing of the portrait’s creation. Prior attempts to depict her have failed because Héloïse refuses to pose. So Marianne must undertake a nearly impossible feat: observing Héloïse imperceptibly on their afternoon walks and painting her in secret afterward.
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire—a quiet but exhilarating film set in 18th-century France—begins with this dramatization of a conventional artist-muse relationship. While Héloïse is initially unaware of Marianne’s intent, she still falls within the tradition of silent inspirations. She offers no input; she simply exists. But days into the arrangement, Héloïse learns of Marianne’s ruse. (“That explains the looks,” she says ruefully.) Alarmed by the distortions she sees in Marianne’s painting, Héloïse unexpectedly offers to sit for the artist. In the scenes that follow, she challenges both Marianne and the viewer, upending familiar ideas about the docile role of the muse. Portrait of a Lady on Fire toys with the meaning—and the thrill and terror—of being seen. In exploring these stakes, the film suggests that the act of seeing isn’t one-directional, even and especially in artistic pairings.