Watching Paint Dry

Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma, 2019)

Some point after 1725, the artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned by a Milan-born countess (Valeria Golino) to paint the portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), whom she intends to marry off to a Milanese nobleman after the death of her elder daughter. Héloïse, formerly a novice at a nunnery, has other ideas and has already worn out a (male) painter. Marianne must pretend to be a companion, and paint in secret.

The incipits are many — a range of gothic novels, with hints at the psychological if not fantastic (Héloïse almost haunts Marianne), Turn of the Screw, Rebecca, even Vertigo. This gives us the framing device, which probably doubled the budget and features men who have been absent since the boatmen deliver Marianne to the house. Marianne is looking at Héloïse, falling in love, and Héloïse is no passive object: she is looking back. I’m also thinking of those folk tales where the embroiderer unpicks all the work she has done that day. The blatant and open parallel is with Orpheus and Eurodyke, with the moment when Marianne looking back being the perfect place to end.

We have an unresolved subplot of the housemaid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), which takes us into the local community of women and allows the sisterhood to cut across classes and emphasises the dangers of men to women in the era. This also gives us a number of sublime, transcendent moments. But we remain in an all-female environment, although the absence of men is a haunting presence — the men are all missing or dead.

Dangers — fire, water, air — tease us, and there’s potential for a really gothic ending that would be in line with the gay gothic narrative form. Perhaps that would be too melodramatic, compared to the sublimation and consolation we are offered. Earth is absent — Mother Earth perhaps, but she is clearly there.

Valeria Golino) intends to send the painting to a Milanese

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