There are two shades of passion blazing through Céline Sciamma’s breathlessly devastating Portrait of a Lady on Fire. One is fire, consuming violently from within. Its burning intensity reveals itself in fleeting moments. The other is the sea, conquering from the outside, its tides raging restlessly against the shore. Though just as powerful, the sea does not subside – it is a memory that remains true forever.
There is a woman on fire, her face burning with anger. But she is not the one who lit it – it is a product of her environment, of the air that is stifling her. It is a product of drought. The woman on fire does not know how to swim. She has spent her whole life scouring through a dark and desolate place. Though she lives right by the ocean, she has never dived in. She knows how dangerous it would be to try to escape.
There is a woman on a boat. She is wearing a red dress. When the tempestuous waves threaten to steal her canvases, she throws herself into the ocean to save them without hesitation. They are her only means of eternalizing, of making things permanent. The woman huddles naked in front of the fire in between her canvases, drying herself off and smoking a pipe. She has come to eternalize the woman on fire.
According to the world, the woman on fire does not yet have a face. She must be moulded, contained, protected. Like her mother, she will find it one day in a portrait. But the woman on fire does not want to be painted. She does not want to sit still – she dreams of running, of living in perpetual motion, of living. Posing would mean surrendering herself to a man she has never met. It would be a portrait of her, but not for her. It would be suicide.
So the woman in the red dress must perform her task in secret. She must observe her carefully, the way she moves and walks and talks. She must memorize the contours of her face, her hands, her ears, her hair, her spirit, and then immortalize them on her canvas. But her first attempt is a failure: though it follows standard artistic conventions, it lacks truth. It does not capture her aliveness. There is no fire in it.
The two women reach an agreement. For her, the woman on fire will make an exception – she will pose in exchange for her lighting match of a gaze. For her, she will allow herself to be looked at, to be turned into art. The fire is rekindled – not by anger this time, but by love. The woman becomes fire. And in the pleasure of watching her, and realizing she is looked at as well, the woman in the red dress can peel off her clothes. She no longer has to tame herself. She becomes the sea.
The women have invented fire. They have invented the sea.
One plays with the other, a forbidden dance. A fatal dance. A dance that must not be seen in broad daylight. But at night, the world is lit by candles. So they watch, and they watch, and they watch.
But the sea must hold the object of her gaze. She must capture it before the flames die out. But the fire does not like to be held still. It is in her nature to dwindle.
So her towering waves embrace her, devour her, and she lets herself be engulfed by the flames, fully aware of the inevitable outcome of that interaction. The fire and the sea coalesce in one final, sweeping, earth-shattering dance – they become one and the same. They have always been the same.
“When do we know it’s finished?” the fire asks. “At one point, we stop,” the sea answers.
And with one final stroke, the dance is over, and the portrait is complete. There is truth in it, but the fire is hidden. It has turned into smoke. The ghost of a memory. The ghost of a woman.
The sea has extinguished the fire, and in doing so, locks her in her heart forever. Like Orpheus, she has decided to look at her love, despite knowing it would cause her to vanish from the face of the earth for all eternity. Because though trapped, her memory will always exist in that sacred place, perfect and untarnished.
But there is still an ember glowing inside of the woman, and her spirit is very much alive. Transfigured for a moment by the power of that memory – their memory – she turns into fire one last time, flames shaking uncontrollably, sparks flying off and dancing all around her. And though she does not know it, the woman in the red dress is watching her, her waves still raging on.