A blank canvas -- how many ways are there to cover it? You start with a single point, thrust up, to the side, scratch violently leftward. A line becomes a brow, an almond pair of eyes, heavy lids, the long slope of a nose slamming into two lip curves, horizontally. A smile? A smirk? A frown, but alluringly. Cheeks round, sharp, hair up or down -- then flood with color. Blonde, brunette, golden eyes, brown and blue ones. A dress so green it puts nature to shame, then blotted out by darkness.
It helps to have four eyes -- eyes from all directions. To walk around a thing is good, but to see a thing at the same time from different perspectives is better. To some you're falling, despair... to others it's simply a knowing wave goodbye. Two people switching places -- to be seen, to see. We are subject and object every second of every day -- in the telling of our stories we force the former into the latter's container; our personal experiences become a thing someone else holds, interprets, projects their own thing down onto. In telling someone else's, well, we're only telling on ourselves.
"Is that how you see me?" The first time Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) sees herself painted by Marianne (Noémie Merlant) this is what she asks, and she doesn't like what she sees; what was seen. Marianne recoils, seeing how wrong she was, how misled her eyes had been, and smudges off the all-wrong face before her humiliation, her defeat, can be seen by any other eyes. To create is divine, and therefore impossible -- we grasp at strands of color and line, smash them together like children, pretending we can capture experience outside of itself; trap it up in a bell jar and watch it suffocate.
In Portrait of a Lady on Fire Marianne has been sent to paint Héloïse, unbeknownst to her and against her wishes if she did, by Héloïse's mother (Valeria Golino) -- Héloïse needs a portrait before she is wed off to a Milanese businessman nobody knows or thinks to know. And so Marianne is forced to sneak around Héloïse stealing glances -- half a face hidden beneath a scarf, an ear lit by lamp light from the bottom of a stairwell. Héloïse looks back, and the women piece each other together furtively, line by line by curve by curve -- like walls of sand separating on a beach little floods of character and personality begin to fill in, puddle and pool, where full persons swim, and smile, and beckon the other closer still.
Will Héloïse smile becomes its own kind of cliffhanger -- everyone tells Marianne that maybe she should try being funny, maybe that will do the trick. Marianne smiles at that, and smiles beget smiles -- rather than demanding a woman look happy... maybe just smile? Every moment we step through is a conversation with the space we inhabit -- our molecules entangle, smells singe our tips. One hearty glance from me might set your dress aflame, burn up the old symbols and we may make something fresh together. The horizon bursts right red.
This is a film of more than Romance, in the capitalized sense -- it's about what romance means, about what falling in love means, about what meeting someone and getting to know someone and getting to like that someone means, on an almost microscopic scale. It's about molecule by molecule dismantling the notion of ever possessing a person -- it is about seeing that person as a person, a full being, standing beside yourself and capable of looking back. There is no need for two to become one -- two is plenty. Two can stand. There is astonishment in every second of seeing and being seen.