A still from Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It's a night shot, with intense chiaroscuro; Adèle Haenel stands in the center, looking at the camera with a neutral impression. Her long dress is on fire at the hem, and her face is illuminated by the fire.

A girl on fireplace.


Portrait of a Woman on Fireplace, the extraordinary new movie from author and director Céline Sciamma, is a love story a couple of painter and her topic, set on a distant island in Brittany within the 18th century. As you’d anticipate from its premise, the movie is obsessive about visible artwork, and as you’d anticipate from its setting (and its filmmakers), it’s a phenomenal piece of visible artwork in its personal proper. However Portrait of a Woman on Fireplace has a vastly completely different perspective towards artwork than most movies about painters, and never simply because the male gaze is completely absent. Sciamma depicts portray as an motion, not an accomplishment, and the insert photographs of painter Helene Delmaire’s arms creating the art work featured within the movie are one among its nice pleasures. As an alternative of reducing collectively the same old montage of a portray slowly rising, Sciamma makes use of uninterrupted photographs of Delmaire doing the work: tracing the outlines of a face in charcoal or capturing the shimmer of the material of a costume, one stroke at a time. This isn’t a matter of creating verisimilitude, or of treating Delmaire’s work with respect and a focus, though it accomplishes each of these issues: Demystifying the craft and strategy of portray lets Sciamma level the viewers towards deeper questions on portraiture’s relationship to like and reminiscence and need. Some items of artwork, although, you need to expertise as a thriller, a clockwork mechanism whose inside workings are so intricate however mesh so completely that it’s unattainable to think about it as a sketch or tough draft. Don’t fear: Portrait of a Woman on Fireplace has a kind of too.

It comes about midway via the film, when Marianne, the painter (Noémie Merlant), and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), her reluctant topic, attend a late-night, all-female social gathering round a bonfire. Like many a late-night, all-female social gathering round a bonfire, this one has barely witchy vibes. It’s not the one time Portrait of a Woman on Fireplace takes that broom for a spin—there’s a sequence through which Marianne and Héloïse experiment with a topical psychoactive drug they receive from a healer that, given the time and place, can solely be flying ointment—but it surely’s the one time Sciamma makes use of music to do it. The movie’s audio totally embraces its 18th century setting. There isn’t any rating and only some situations of diegetic music, which its characters deal with as impossibly helpful. Héloïse, lately plucked from a convent to be married off, has solely ever heard organ music; Marianne can hunt and peck her means via Vivaldi on a harpsichord, however that’s about it. With no rating, the soundscape is an odd mixture of intimate and austere: The tiniest breaths are clearly audible, however the large, echoey rooms through which a lot of the movie takes place give it a chilly high quality, even with the sound of a hearth crackling within the background. This excerpt captures the general sound:

Not very inviting! On the bonfire, nonetheless, with little fanfare or rationalization, the ladies gathered across the fireplace carry out a haunting and mysterious piece of choral music. The scene is a showstopper, not least as a result of by that time within the film, Sciamma has so fully enveloped the viewers in Marianne and Héloïse’s music-free world that it takes just a few seconds to even grasp what’s taking place on the soundtrack. Portrait of a Woman on Fireplace’s sound design is a feast-or-famine state of affairs, and right here’s the feast:

To start with, if the THX swell didn’t tip you off, this isn’t what music appeared like in Brittany within the 18th century. The piece, “La Jeune Fille en Feu,” was written for the movie by Para One, the digital music producer who labored on Sciamma’s movies Water and Tomboy, and Arthur Simonini, dropped at collaborate on this explicit piece as a result of he had extra expertise with choirs. In response to Para One, the duo extensively researched the music of the interval however finally satisfied Sciamma a contemporary sound would higher swimsuit her movie. Their largest inspiration was not something interval applicable, however György Ligeti’s Requiem, famously utilized in 2001: A Area Odyssey. You may hear a transparent echo of Ligeti within the opening bars of Para One and Simonini’s composition.

At first, a science fiction movie about males and machines traversing outer area to search out musical inspiration for an 18th century lesbian romance appears misguided, if not actively perverse. Structurally, nonetheless, it makes good sense: The bonfire scene is the pivot round which the movie turns, and it’s constructed round a central picture that’s each bit as mysterious and complete-in-itself as Kubrick’s monolith. And just like the monolith, that picture serves as a mix of inspiration and inciting incident, though the journey it sparks is an inside and creative one as a substitute of a visit to Jupiter. The music, too, is monolithic: Even melody appears out of attain for the primary half of the movie, after which all of a sudden the viewers is totally enveloped within the wealthy harmonies of the tune’s opening glissando, then propelled via the transcendent scene that follows by polyrhythmic claps and haunting chanting.

However what are they chanting? It’s straightforward to see why Para One and Simonini set the textual content in Latin: since filmmakers found Carl Orff, there was no simpler approach to evoke cinematic grandeur or thriller than hiring a choir to chant in a useless language. The overall precept right here holds even when the language is meaningless—see, e.g., Michael Abels’ opening theme for Us, which incorporates a kids’s choir singing random Latinate syllables that sound like they need to imply one thing—and doubtless one thing unhealthy—however are literally gibberish:

However the lyrics to “La Jeune Fille en Feu” do imply one thing, though not essentially precisely what they had been supposed to. It’s unattainable to make out the whispers, however the central chant is obvious sufficient: “Non possum fugere.” Google Translate renders that as “I’m not capable of escape all,” so “I can not flee,” roughly, which might communicate to each the inevitable feeling of falling in love and the way in which Sciamma’s characters are constrained by their time and place. Within the tune’s coda, the lyric is “Nos resurgemus,” which suggests “We rise,” additionally becoming for a film about girls constructing an area from which they will transcend their environment.

In a single interview, Para One stated that the textual content was written by Sciamma , and that she most well-liked to maintain its translation and which means a thriller. However at a latest Q&A, Sciamma says that she began with an aphorism from Thus Spake Zarathusthra and imperfectly translated it from French to Latin utilizing Google Translate. The unique aphorism is normally rendered in English as “The upper we soar, the smaller we seem to those that can not fly,” however reverse-engineering Sciamma’s translation is mainly unattainable due to the variety of languages concerned. For completeness sake, right here’s the unique German, which has a unique sentence construction than the English model:

Du gehst über sie hinaus: aber je höher du steigst, um so kleiner sieht dich das Auge des Neides. Am meisten aber wird der Fliegende gehasst.

It’s straightforward to see how you possibly can get “Nos Resurgemus” from “we soar,” and “fly” and “flee” are equally shut—actually, Google Translate renders “those that can not fly” in English as “Qui non possum fugere” in Latin. However you don’t need to get into the weeds of translation to suss out the tune’s which means: The aphorism is about transcending the individuals and issues that maintain you down, and so is “La Jeunne Fille en Feu.” What’s so exceptional about its use in Portrait of a Woman on Fireplace is the way in which the tune embodies its personal which means, creating and delimiting a liberating area proper on the movie’s middle. The parsimonious use of music in the remainder of the movie makes the bonfire scene fully overwhelming for characters and viewers alike, so intense that it’s nearly insufferable. The music is gorgeous, it’s transporting, it’s rapturous. As if the pure, clear notes of the choir may shatter all the things that binds Marianne and Héloïse to their time and their place and their limits. As if, within the area created by music, we might be free.

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