This essay contains spoilers for Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire focuses on the passionate love story between an artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the latter of whom transcends the role of the muse into one of a collaborator. This film has been rightfully praised for its beautiful costume design. Whether it be the backdrop of the beach or the candlelit house, the colors that each character is wearing stands out against this. The color choices in the costume design is an aspect of this film that should be noticed, as the different colors of dresses that each character wears can be seen as symbolic.
Colors can symbolize different things, and the interpretation of a color can depend on various factors, such as someone’s culture or religion. For instance, in the Western world, the red and green lights on a traffic light indicate when people have to stop or go. This is an association that people learn and accept. Color can also influence a person’s emotions. German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published Theory of Colours, his treatise on the psychology of color. Goethe explored the psychological impact that different colors can have on one’s mood and emotion. Although Goethe’s scientific conclusions have been disproved by now, his link between color and how it affects us is still an interesting subject to grapple with, especially in relation to how colors are used as symbolism in film.
The opening scene of Portrait shows Marianne seated at the front of a classroom, instructing students on how to study her figure in order to paint her. She becomes upset upon noticing one of her students brought out a painting of hers from a long time ago. It is clear from the slight falter in her composed expression that this painting brought back memories she wished not to think about. When asked what the title of the painting is, Marianne hesitates briefly before answering under her breath, “portrait de la jeune fille en feu” or “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” The tone of her voice sounds as if she is mourning the loss of the memories held by the painting.
Marianne is wearing a blue dress in this opening scene. Although cool colors such as blue sometimes represent feelings of serenity, blue has also been used for many years to represent sadness. Blue being synonymous with sadness can be seen in other contexts such as the idiom “feeling blue” that is commonly used to portray feelings of melancholy. Some say this phrase comes from the custom of deepwater sailing ships, where blue flags would be flown and a blue band would be painted along the hull when returning home if a captain or other officer died during voyage. Another example is the poem The Complaint of Mars by Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1385) who used the color blue in connection with sadness in the line, “wyth teres blewe and with a wounded herte” (with tears blue and with a wounded heart).
The following scene in the film shows Marianne in the past, who is arriving on an island off the coast of Brittany. She has been secretly commissioned to paint a young woman’s portrait so she can be married off to a Milanese nobleman. This is the first time we see Marianne wearing the red dress that she will continue to wear throughout the entire film. Red is part of the warm color scheme on the color wheel, along with yellow and orange. These warm colors remind us of fire, as Pamela Gordon writes, they often “feel alive, energetic, and enriching” (Art Matters, 89).
After her arrival, Marianne is brought to the room she will be staying in by Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who lights a fire for her to dry off besides. Marianne strips off her red dress to let herself bathe in its warm light. As the fire crackles softly behind her, we see Marianne sitting naked in front of it. This is where fire becomes symbolically connected with her character.
Later in the film when Marianne, Héloïse and Sophie gather with other women around a bonfire. The chorus of powerful voices sing in unison the Latin phrase “fugere non possum” as Marianne and Héloïse hold each other’s gaze from opposite sides of the flames. As the singing intensifies, Héloïse’s dress catches on fire. Both women are frozen as they continue to look at one another in adoration and longing. It is not until someone else jumps in that the fire on her dress is put out. This is similar to Marianne: she is the fire that comes into Héloïse’s life and sets it ablaze with a passionate romance that they know cannot last and it is only a matter of time before her mother’s return puts out the flames.
At the start of the film, Marianne must study Héloïse in secret in order to complete her portrait, as Héloïse is indignantly against her arranged marriage and refuses to sit for any painter. She knows that her portrait will be sent off to her suitor, and this small act is the only way she can protest in this patriarchal society. Thus, Marianne spends her initial time with Héloïse stealing glances of her features under the guise that she is there to be her new companion. When Marianne completes her painting, she feels the guilt of her lie, and decides to tell Héloïse the truth. Upon Héloïse’s dissatisfaction with her portrait, Marianne decides to destroy the painting and start over. From then on, Héloïse agrees to pose for Marianne and the portrait becomes an artistic collaboration between the two women. While being painted, Héloïse wears the green dress that Sophie provided. The color green is seen to symbolize renewal and growth, as the color is abundant in nature. The color of her dress is representative of Héloïse’s newfound decision to take the power back and decide for herself to pose, thus accepting her fate to be married off.
Red and green are complementary colors on the color wheel because they are opposite one another. When next to each other, complementary colors have an effect called simultaneous contrast, where both colors seem more vibrant and intense (Gordon, p. 88). The scene at the beach where Héloïse and Marianne hold each other, knowing that their romance is coming to an end, is where the red and green colors are on full display next to each other. It appears that this choice to create a complementary color scheme was purposeful, as it further adds to the intensity of the scene as they embrace.
During their last night together, Marianne and Héloïse lie facing one another, both in white sleeping gowns.
The color white is employed once again. When Héloïse’s mother returns home, they both know that because the portrait is finished, Héloïse will now be sent off to marry another. After Marianne shares an emotional goodbye with Sophie, she is shown breathing heavily before entering the room to bid farewell to Héloïse. When she enters, she is greeted by Héloïse being fitted for a white wedding dress by her mother.
The two women shared a brief hug before Marianne quickly rushes out of the room and down the stairs to exit the house forever. With Marianne’s hand on the door, Héloïse exclaims two words to her, “retourne-toi” or “turn around.” Throughout the film, Marianne continued to have visions of Héloïse standing in front of her, adorned in a bright white wedding dress that cascaded to the floor and seemed to give off an angelic glow. This vision is portrayed in the film to be haunting, as if Marianne is seeing the ghost of Héloïse as she walked about the house at night. When Marianne turns around one last time to see Héloïse, she witnesses the woman she loves standing in the stairwell in the same wedding dress from her visions, before she shuts the door.
In Western cultures, the color white has been used to convey purity, innocence, and peace and is commonly seen during wedding ceremonies where the bride will wear a white wedding gown. In contrast, in many Eastern cultures, white has been linked to death and mourning, as some people wear white to funerals (Art Matters, 91). The color white in that sense is used as a symbol of hope for rebirth. In the case of Héloïse, her arranged marriage is arguably akin to her death sentence, where her autonomy will be taken from her forever. However, in that final shot of Héloïse listening to the orchestra play Summer from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, we watch her begin to cry. She is crying because all she wished to do was to hear music being played. She is crying at the loss of a love that once was. But in the end, a slight smile plays across her face through tears that feel almost like we are witnessing her own rebirth.
by Alysha Prasad
Alysha Prasad (she/her) is an aspiring freelance writer who is going to be pursuing her Master’s Degree in Film and Television at DePaul University in Chicago. Her favorite films include: Call Me By Your Name, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Before Sunset. You can find her on Twitter at @leeshprasad.