Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the extraordinary new film from writer and director Céline Sciamma, is a love story about a painter and her subject, set on a remote island in Brittany in the 18th century. As you’d expect from its premise, the film is obsessed with visual art, and as you’d expect from its setting (and its filmmakers), it’s a beautiful piece of visual art in its own right. But Portrait of a Lady on Fire has a vastly different attitude toward art than most films about painters, and not just because the male gaze is entirely absent. Sciamma depicts painting as an action, not an accomplishment, and the insert shots of painter Helene Delmaire’s hands creating the artwork featured in the film are one of its great pleasures. Instead of cutting together the usual montage of a painting slowly emerging, Sciamma uses uninterrupted shots of Delmaire doing the work: tracing the outlines of a face in charcoal or capturing the shimmer of the fabric of a dress, one stroke at a time. This isn’t a matter of establishing verisimilitude, or of treating Delmaire’s work with respect and attention, although it accomplishes both of those things: Demystifying the craft and technique of painting lets Sciamma point the audience toward deeper questions about portraiture’s relationship to love and memory and desire. Some pieces of art, though, you want to experience as a mystery, a clockwork mechanism whose internal workings are so intricate but mesh so perfectly that it’s impossible to imagine it as a sketch or rough draft. Don’t worry: Portrait of a Lady on Fire has one of those too.
It comes about halfway through the movie, when Marianne, the painter (Noémie Merlant), and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), her reluctant subject, attend a late-night, all-female social gathering around a bonfire. Like many a late-night, all-female social gathering around a bonfire, this one has slightly witchy vibes. It’s not the only time Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes that broom for a spin—there’s a sequence in which Marianne and Héloïse experiment with a topical psychoactive drug they obtain from a healer that, given the time and place, can only be flying ointment—but it’s the only time Sciamma uses music to do it. The film’s audio fully embraces its 18th century setting. There is no score and only a few instances of diegetic music, which its characters treat as impossibly valuable. Héloïse, recently plucked from a convent to be married off, has only ever heard organ music; Marianne can hunt and peck her way through Vivaldi on a harpsichord, but that’s about it. With no score, the soundscape is a strange mix of intimate and austere: The tiniest breaths are clearly audible, but the big, echoey rooms in which most of the film takes place give it a cold quality, even with the sound of a fire crackling in the background. This excerpt captures the overall sound:
Not very inviting! At the bonfire, however, with little fanfare or explanation, the women gathered around the fire perform a haunting and mysterious piece of choral music. The scene is a showstopper, not least because by that point in the movie, Sciamma has so completely enveloped the audience in Marianne and Héloïse’s music-free world that it takes a few seconds to even grasp what’s happening on the soundtrack. Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s sound design is a feast-or-famine situation, and here’s the feast:
First of all, if the THX swell didn’t tip you off, this is not what music sounded like in Brittany in the 18th century. The piece, “La Jeune Fille en Feu,” was written for the film by Para One, the electronic music producer who worked on Sciamma’s films Water and Tomboy, and Arthur Simonini, brought to collaborate on this particular piece because he had more experience with choirs. According to Para One, the duo extensively researched the music of the period but ultimately convinced Sciamma a modern sound would better suit her film. Their biggest inspiration was not anything period appropriate, but György Ligeti’s Requiem, famously used in 2001: A Space Odyssey. You can hear a clear echo of Ligeti in the opening bars of Para One and Simonini’s composition.
At first, looking at a science fiction film about men and machines traversing outer space to find musical inspiration for an 18th century lesbian romance seems misguided, if not actively perverse. Structurally, however, it makes perfect sense: The bonfire scene is the pivot around which the film turns, and it’s built around a central image that is every bit as mysterious and complete-in-itself as Kubrick’s monolith. And like the monolith, that image serves as a combination of inspiration and inciting incident, although the journey it sparks is an interior and artistic one instead of a trip to Jupiter. The music, too, is monolithic: Even melody seems out of reach for the first half of the film, and then suddenly the audience is completely enveloped in the rich harmonies of the song’s opening glissando, then propelled through the transcendent scene that follows by polyrhythmic claps and haunting chanting.
But what are they chanting? It’s easy to see why Para One and Simonini set the text in Latin: since filmmakers discovered Carl Orff, there has been no easier way to evoke cinematic grandeur or mystery than hiring a choir to chant in a dead language. The general principle here holds even if the language is meaningless—see, e.g., Michael Abels’ opening theme for Us, which features a children’s choir singing random Latinate syllables that sound like they must mean something—and probably something bad—but are actually gibberish:
But the lyrics to “La Jeune Fille en Feu” do mean something, although not necessarily exactly what they were intended to. It’s impossible to make out the whispers, but the central chant is clear enough: “Non possum fugere.” Google Translate renders that as “I am not able to escape all,” so “I cannot flee,” more or less, which would speak to both the inevitable feeling of falling in love and the way Sciamma’s characters are constrained by their time and place. In the song’s coda, the lyric is “Nos resurgemus,” which means “We rise,” also fitting for a movie about women building a space from which they can transcend their surroundings.
In one interview, Para One said that the text was written by Sciamma , and that she preferred to keep its translation and meaning a mystery. But at a recent Q&A, Sciamma says that she started with an aphorism from Thus Spake Zarathusthra and imperfectly translated it from French to Latin using Google Translate. The original aphorism is usually rendered in English as “The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly,” but reverse-engineering Sciamma’s translation is basically impossible because of the number of languages involved. For completeness sake, here’s the original German, which has a different sentence structure than the English version:
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 easy to see how you could get “Nos Resurgemus” from “we soar,” and “fly” and “flee” are equally close—in fact, Google Translate renders “those who cannot fly” in English as “Qui non possum fugere” in Latin. But you don’t have to get into the weeds of translation to suss out the song’s meaning: The aphorism is about transcending the people and things that hold you down, and so is “La Jeunne Fille en Feu.” What’s so remarkable about its use in Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the way the song embodies its own meaning, creating and delimiting a liberating space right at the film’s center. The parsimonious use of music in the rest of the film makes the bonfire scene completely overwhelming for characters and audience alike, so intense that it is almost unbearable. The music is beautiful, it is transporting, it is rapturous. As though the pure, clear notes of the choir could shatter everything that binds Marianne and Héloïse to their time and their place and their limits. As though, in the space created by music, we could be free.