Desire and Servitude in Portrait of a Lady on Fire
by Maggie Dunn
Céline Sciamma’s 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a queer and feminist classic in the making which relies on food as something that both brings characters together and ultimately threatens to tear them apart. Whilst living on the French seaside in the eighteenth century, three women tend to and care for one another, often through cooking. Marianne, an artist, has been commissioned by Héloïse’s family to paint her portrait. They are accompanied by maid and friend Sophie. Painter and subject enjoy a romantic relationship, preparing potatoes, herbs, wine, and soup as a means of sharing in one another's love. Despite having Sophie as their maid, Héloïse and Marianne opt to cook for one another and, at times, even serve Sophie the food they have prepared. This subversion of roles and content in servitude show the deep love the two richer women share for both one another and their friend of a lower class.
Directly following this scene, the women read a story by candlelight: that of Orpheus and Eurydice, a classic myth following a man who gives into temptation in order to love his wife. Sophie, Héloïse, and Marianne discuss the ethics of this myth, and Sciamma draws a parallel between these famed lovers and love affair within the film. It should come as no surprise that this scene directly follows feasting. After all, Héloïse and Marianne give into desire by loving and cooking for one another, placing them both at risk of societal outcast due to the time period. The film ends as Héloïse’s final portrait is shown, in which she holds the book of myths. While Héloïse and Marianne must marry men due to social expectation, the two never stopped loving one another.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Dir. Céline Sciamma. Lilies Films, 2019.