How Portrait of a Lady on Fire Subverts the Artist-Muse Relationship

The French film, about a painter who falls for the woman she’s commissioned to depict, upends a familiar dynamic.

Lilies Films

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.

When Marianne tells Héloïse mid-pose that she would “hate to be in her place,” for example, Héloïse is quick to correct her: “We’re in the same place.” In a sentence, Héloïse rejects passivity and puts them on equal footing. Thus begins one of Portrait’s most affecting sequences, in which Héloïse echoes Marianne’s small observations. Perched on her chair, the subject maintains her gaze on the painter and rattles off a list of idiosyncrasies she’s noticed about Marianne: how her face changes when she’s upset, the little movements the artist isn’t aware of. “If you look at me, who do I look at?” Héloïse asks knowingly. Marianne, once comfortable in her position as the spectator, is shaken by the realization that she is capturing a subject who sees her, too. The painting isn’t just a work of Marianne’s; it’s every bit Héloïse’s as well.

This exchange is among the most erotic moments in a film full of them. Throughout the latter half of the movie, Sciamma ties Héloïse and Marianne’s romantic connection to the latter’s artwork. As the two lie in bed one morning, Marianne sketches her lover, and Héloïse laments the asymmetry of their situations: When Marianne eventually leaves, she’ll have images of Héloïse by which to remember their time together. Héloïse, meanwhile, will have nothing that evokes the painter’s face. Marianne remedies this imbalance by bridging the gap between artist and muse once more. She draws an image of herself, as seen in the mirror propped against Héloïse’s body, on a page in Héloïse’s notebook. Sciamma employs some of her most scintillating camerawork in this scene, alternately focusing on Héloïse’s satisfied face and Marianne’s concentrated sketching. When the camera pans to reveal the exact placement of the mirror, it’s hardly a surprise.

Sciamma emphasizes the eroticism that animates Héloïse and Marianne’s quiet moments of co-creation, a directorial choice that speaks to the urgency of the women’s relationship. Crucially, their connection, and the work produced as a result of it, contrasts with the initial task Marianne was commissioned for: painting a portrait of Héloïse to be sent to the Milanese nobleman that her mother (Valeria Golino) has arranged for her to marry. Marianne’s first painting, before Héloïse became an active participant in the project, reflected the nature of Héloïse’s feelings toward her husband-to-be: The portrait was empty, absent of the vitality that Héloïse possessed and the care with which she regarded Marianne. When acting as a proxy for Héloïse’s suitor—which is to say, when acting in service of a man’s gaze—Marianne replicated more traditional treatments of muses. She flattened her subject. The painting whiffed of Marianne’s artistic flourishes, not of Héloïse’s essence.

Beginning with her critique of this original painting, Héloïse resists the implied submissiveness of her role as subject. Though its explicit eroticism sets it apart, Portrait joins other relatively recent productions in returning agency to female figures traditionally relegated to the role of the so-called muse. Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, an exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery, focuses on the women who orbited the much-hailed Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The aptly titled Reversal of the Muse podcast explored the creative and technical skills of women working in different parts of the music industry. And a mid-aughts play by the writer Sarah Ruhl boldly retold the tragic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice through the latter’s perspective. Eurydice, like Portrait, contemplated the burden of memory, and art’s power to preserve it.

Fittingly, the Greek tale is referenced in Sciamma’s film too. Marianne reads the story aloud to Héloïse and her mother’s maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). Sophie is aghast when Orpheus—having been told that he can rescue his beloved from the underworld on the condition that he not look at her until they’ve escaped—turns to glance at Eurydice, thereby trapping her in hades forever. The maid considers him a fool, a man whose impatience leads to his own misery and to his wife’s. But Héloïse offers a different explanation: Orpheus made “the poet’s choice,” not the lover’s. Marianne watches intently as Héloïse explains that perhaps Eurydice mattered more to Orpheus as a memory than as a person.

Even before she and Marianne are forced apart by Héloïse’s marriage, the implication of this assessment is clear; Héloïse knows that, ultimately, she and Marianne will exist to each other solely as memories. All the more reason, then, to ensure that the artifacts of their relationship are imbued with both of their spirits. In the final scenes of the film, Sciamma captures one result of Héloïse’s solemn assessment warmly: Even in a painting made by another artist, Héloïse beckons to Marianne. The paintbrush never touches Héloïse’s hand, but she makes her mark all the same.