“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” uses music to stunning effect – and it barely uses music at all

By Sammie Purcell
BU News Service

BROOKLINE – Céline Sciamma knows how to keep an audience on the edge of their seat. 

She doesn’t do it through loud action sequences or dramatic plot twists. 

She does it through patience. 

While we are used to romances with sweeping orchestral scores that tell us what to feel and when, Sciamma uses almost no music at all to create an enduring love story that crescendos and breaks over the audience like a wave.

“It’s not about your frustration, it’s about delay,” Sciamma said.

The French director explained the thought process behind her cinematic masterpiece, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” at a video Q&A at the Coolidge Corner Theater on Thursday after a showing of the film.

“I didn’t want you to have it if [the characters] didn’t,” she said of her decision to forego a score. “Because it’s all about sharing that experience.”

The film focuses on the romantic relationship between two women in 18th century France, and it won the Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival – the first film directed by a woman to do so.

The story begins when painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), to be sent to Héloïse’s betrothed in Milan. Héloïse, resentful of her impending nuptials, refuses to pose for her last painter in protest, so Marianne arrives under the guise of friendship, accompanying Héloïse on walks by day and painting her by night. 

The romance starts with total silence. We meet Marianna first, and soon we see her sailing up towards an imposing seaside estate, nothing but the sound of crashing waves in the background. 

Several minutes pass before we know Marianne’s reason for being there. It’s several more painstaking moments before we meet the subject of her painting, but only from behind. Several more tense seconds later, Héloïse turns and we finally see her face. 

All of this tense build up is set to natural sound – winds, crackling fires, footsteps in a cavernous hall. It’s quite jarring at first. It feels like something is missing because we’ve become so attuned to what we should expect from movies, especially romances. Music is used to arouse feelings in the audience, so how do we know what to feel when we’re left without it?

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” does use music to evoke emotion, but sparingly. When music is used in the film, it’s diegetic – the characters can hear the music the same as the audience. In its way, the natural sound is a score and punctuates the beats of the film.

The sound of the waves crashing as two bodies meet, heavy breathing during a lingering look, charcoal scratching across a canvas as a woman sketches her lover – it’s all used as a composer would use a score, to convey desire, love and freedom. 

Freedom especially.

During the Q&A Thursday night, Sciamma said the film is about our relationship to creation and beauty. With a major element of your relationship to film, the score, taken away, the sound of music overwhelms you when it happens – much like it overwhelms Héloïse in the film. This is evident in Adele Haenel’s performance. She buzzes with electricity when she hears music and balks at the thought of her freedom being taken away. 

In one scene, the two leads attend a nighttime gathering of women singing around a bonfire. The scene comes at a pivotal moment in the desire of the two characters. Sciamma lingers on the faces of the women singing, Marianne’s gaze upon Héloïse and Héloïse’s smile and smoldering look as her dress catches flame during a crescendo. Each woman onscreen is expressing a form of liberation, all connected through song. 

More than any other character, Héloïse has the most fraught relationship with music and, therefore freedom. Having lived at a convent before returning home to be married, she loves music but has never heard anything other than organs play. 

During Marianne’s quest to paint Héloïse, she laments that she can’t make Héloïse smile. The first few times we see Héloïse break into wide-eyed glee is when she hears music. Music functions as an operative of freedom, a way to escape and something to love. 

The final images of the film are its most moving. Everything Sciamma has done up until this point, two hours of restrained delay, has put the audience and the characters in a position to truly feel the effects of music: its sadness, its beauty and its liberation. 

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” premiered Feb. 14 at Coolidge Corner Theater and is in theaters through Feb. 23.

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