Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A tale of burning desire

A stunning portrayal of queer love, art, and the female gaze

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, written and directed by Céline Sciamma, is a beautiful film, through and through. Everything from the screenplay to the cinematography invokes an abundance of emotion and builds tension between the two main characters, Héloïse and Marianne. In the late 18th century, a woman named Héloïse is about to be married against her will, and Marianne is an artist commissioned to paint her in secret. Marianne keeps her intention unknown because Héloïse has refused to pose for previous painters to defy her imminent marriage. Although Héloïse believes Marianne to just be a walking companion, their relationship develops into something more as their desire for each other grows.

The pacing of this film, due to its direction and writing, is flawless. It is slow without being boring; every scene introduces new emotional elements that keep the film going. The chemistry between the lead actresses, Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant, is remarkable. Their performances are nuanced and natural, bringing raw emotion to the forefront of each scene. The characters’ yearning for each other is expressed through glances, stares and carefully composed body language. The pace makes you anticipate the budding romance, and the tension between the leads is expressed during these slow scenes.

Sciamma explores interesting themes other than love and queer romance through her writing: art, womanhood, memory and the concept of “the gaze”— how we observe art and other people. There is a fascinating exploration of the female gaze and the difference between being looked at and being seen.

Another thing that stands out about Portrait of a Lady on Fire is its sound design and soundtrack. It wasn’t until a song was sung by a group of women in the film that I realized there was no soundtrack at all – every sound is diegetic (meaning it’s occurring inside the world of the characters). Throughout the film, only two songs are heard. In between, every sound overwhelms the space, even noise as small as the movement of fabric. Sciamma’s choice here was clever, for the lack of nondiegetic sound in the film produces a sense of authenticity for the time period. The sounds of the natural world are almost overwhelming, which contrasts with the present day, as the natural world is often drowned out by man-made noise. When music is heard, the experience is elevated to a new emotional intensity, allowing you to connect with the character’s experience.

The mise-en-scène is gorgeous as well. The dark, candlelit rooms evoke a sense of warmth, comfort and intimacy. The bright and colourful exterior shots by the ocean create a feeling of freedom and expression—it is where Héloïse and Marianne share their first kiss, after all. Like the sound design, each shot was carefully assembled for the sake of the story and effectively captured the characters’ longing for each other.

Ultimately, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an excellent film. Sciamma knows her craft and expertly constructs a film that makes the setting feel genuine and drives the audience to understand what the characters feel. It is an emotional experience that is beautiful to see and hear; it is not something to be missed.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire will be accessible on Video On Demand on April 3.


An auto-ethnography to embrace new beginnings

Womanhood. Vulnerability. Healing. Value. Recognition. Seduction.

These words are at the centre of The Parlour Project: Spider, Fly and Web, the first collaborative initiative practiced by The Wolf Lab, founded by Amber Dawn Bellemare.

Bellemare, who studied communications and First Peoples studies at Concordia, is a former sex worker and is currently the program animator for the Truth, Healing and Reconciliation for the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC). The CUC brings together followers of Unitarian Universalism who affirm the worth and dignity of every person. They value justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. They seek peace, respect, and acceptance of one another in a global community, or an “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”, according to their website.

The Parlour Project stems from these values. Her past documentary work focused on telling others’ stories, and this auto-ethnography will be the first time Bellemare focuses on her own, welcoming viewers into her parlour. The artist documented her health and wellbeing before and after rendez-vous’ with clients, which revealed a full range of emotions.

The Parlour Project, an auto-ethnographic performance-exhibition created by Amber Dawn Bellemare in conjunction with The Wolf Lab. Photo by Lana Nimmons.

Seeking to create an immersive experience, the happening is part normal photography exhibition and part ceremonial performance. Bellemare hopes the project will deepen relationships and connections to the present moment, expanding the view of oneself to include others.

“The project is more profound than I initially thought it would be,” revealed Bellemare. “I was sexualized young, determining my value by my sexuality, a common experience shared among women… I wanted to redefine what dinner and a movie looked like.” Her work distills important aspects of the conversation about female sexuality. She found confidence in her vision and voice to heal and connect with others.

The full name of the project is derived from a poem by Mary Howlitt,

“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly. “‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy; the way into my parlour is up a winding stair, and I’ve a many curious things to show when you are there.” “Oh no, no,” said the little Fly. “To ask me is in vain, for who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.” (The Spider and the Fly, 1828)

Bellemare said she always thought of herself as either the spider or the fly, depending on the circumstances. The spider, when she was luring or seducing. The fly, when she was submitting to clients or creating individual experiences for them. Only later did she come to recognize that the art of tease and seduction is necessary not only to the spider’s web, but the entirety of the trio; unapologetic, warm, and welcoming, creating sincere and vulnerable experiences throughout her life—not solely in her work.

Opening on Sept 19., you can experience The Parlour Project until Sept. 28 at 4035 St-Ambroise St., studio 206. Tickets are available online and cost $20 for general admission, $15 for students, seniors and sex workers, or $25 at the door. All showings are 18+. Please consult the Eventbrite calendar for opening times. The event will be filmed on weekends for documentation purposes.


Feature photo courtesy of the artist

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