Music as the enabler of intellect and eroticism in Céline Sciamma’s film, 'Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu'.
Despite winning the award for best screenplay at the 2019 Festival de Cannes, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu is a film primarily about a concealed passion burning within two women. Whilst the script is elegant and lyrical, reminiscent of aristocratic sophistication in eighteenth century France, Sciamma has imbued it with obscure insinuations which are brought to light by the music and art exhibited within the film itself.
The intellectual notes of the script are reflected in scenes of mutual observation between the two heroines: Marianne, a cerebral portraitist working on commission, and Héloïse, a young aristocrat suddenly back from the convent, exchange only a few symbolic words that reveal the possibility of sapphic desire. The general dialogue conforms to themes of duty, social etiquette and distance, letting the space in between their enigmatic conversations reveal the women’s deep attraction to each other’s bodies and minds. Sciamma thus draws a sharp contrast between the patriarchal Age of Enlightenment and the many elements of women’s suppressed internal lives and desires that could only be expressed through obscure art and figurative language. The heroines’ love is ignited behind the bedroom door in an isolated mansion on a cliff by troubled waters, highlighting its inaccessibility to the outside world.
Where language fails to reveal explicitness, Sciamma gives way to artistic forms of expression which would have been mastered by the educated woman at the time. The film score is entirely internal to the film, consisting of Vivaldi’s Summer in G Minor and a Latin chant sung by a secret circle of women, allowing the characters to give life and personality to the development of their emotions on their own terms. The engagement of the audience and the interference of outside technology is thus restricted, and we are left bewildered and rightfully excluded from the layers of deep intimacy between the two characters whose passion unfolds independently of all else except the music. Marianne plays Vivaldi’s piece on the harpsichord, its minor notes and dramatic undertones cautioning against the possibility of a storm on the horizon, reflecting the dangers of the expression of lesbian desire and the coexisting limitations of class and gender in the eighteenth century. Perhaps wittingly, Marianne’s fingers strike a chord in Héloïse’s heart, and she begins to fall for the young painter. A wordless moment of intense intimacy ensues, the baroque piece marking the theme of the women’s precarious feelings for each other, echoed in the final performance at the opera where they are both present but fail to meet, yet remain bound by the intense catharsis of the piece.
In collaboration with music producer Para One, Sciamma composes a chant consisting only of a quote by Nietzche which she translates into Latin: “The higher we rise, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.” The choice of having it chanted in Latin is in itself significant in that it reinforces the esoteric quality of the film; the dead language of scholars is revived, shared among marginalised women and incanted in a somewhat unsettling harmony so as to replicate the collective raising of an alarm. Sciamma’s eerie and confrontational sound is described as György Ligeti meets traditional Bretton dancing; an intellectual bazaar of deeply obscure imagery advocating for the emancipation of women and the freedom to express their right to sexuality. It then comes as no surprise that Sciamma could have named her heroines after two figures of revolution in France: Marianne, the personification of Liberty and the French Republic, and Héloïse d’Argenteuil, erotic abbess and the figure that inspired most literary movements we know of today. Accordingly, we are left with a film whose music discreetly mounts a feminist revolution central to women’s intellectual and sexual liberation.