Conveying intimacy in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire was the last movie I saw in theaters before COVID-19 landed stateside. While I’m sad that watching movies on the big screen won’t be an option for a while, at least it ended on a high note. Portrait is an astounding film with unimpeachable craftsmanship, from acting to script and cinematography. And now, with the film’s availability on Hulu, it’s also a great film to enjoy at home. For this post, we’ll look at how the camera — its distance from subjects, characters in the frame, where, and for how long — can convey growing intimacy between characters.

What follows is light on spoilers. We’re only covering content from the first thirty or so minutes of the film, glossing over dialogue and plot developments. That said, some setup is in order: Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a portrait of a young woman Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) on an island in Brittany during the late 1700s.

Core to the film is the budding relationship between Marianne and Héloïse. We’ll look at the characters’ first three scenes together to see how that relationship develops. Fundamentally, each scene boils down to two characters walking and talking. Aesthetically the encounters share a spare, minimalist setup. Marianne and Héloïse retain the same costuming across meetings (Marianne wears a simple red dress, Héloïse a multilayered wrap dress in blue), take their walks at similar times of day outdoors, and are not accompanied by a musical score. The only noteworthy sound beyond dialogue is the occasional crash of waves against the shore. Few, if any, camera shots draw attention to themselves. There are no inserts, spare use of wide angle and closeup, little use of narrow depth of field, and many angles and compositions repeat themselves.

However, decisions made by director Céline Sciamma, DP Claire Mathon, and editor Julien Lacheray in terms of frame composition (who’s in the frame and where) and shot length (runtime between cuts) have an enormous impact in telegraphing intimacy between Marianne and Héloïse.

Image A

For the two characters’ first meeting (roughly nineteen minutes into the film’s runtime), you can divide the scene visually into three parts. Part one (image A above) crescendos to an early burst of action: Marianne follows Héloïse on her walk from behind, only for Héloïse to make a sudden run towards the cliff edge. She stops before going over and turns to reveal her face to Marianne for the first time. The camera sticks mostly to POV tracking shots that follow Héloïse from the back at medium length or reverse to focus on Marianne’s front. Shots run from seven to eleven seconds, long by modern Hollywood standards, but brisk compared to Marianne’s and Héloïse’s later scenes.

Part two opens with a wide angle shot that begins with only Héloïse in the frame. Marianne enters a few seconds in, marking the first time in the film both women share the same shot. A fifteen second shot length gives just enough time to register the visual contrast between the two women.

Image B

Next, we transition to the centerpiece shot of the entire scene (image B). We see the left side of both characters staring out towards the sea. Pinpoint blocking of the two actresses ensure Marianne’s head denies us any view of Héloïse until one or both women turn their heads. At by far the longest shot of the encounter at 29 seconds, Marianne steals a glance at Héloïse and vice versa. A low depth of field and rack focus help transition our view from one character to the other.

Image C

At this point, the scene shifts into its final stage as the setting transitions back indoors (image C). Aside from the change in scenery, the camera mostly settles back into its established pattern of shot reverse shot, alternating between Héloïse and Marianne near the center of the frame. One noteworthy change happens near the end of the encounter when Héloïse follows Marianne, reversing the camera coverage we’ve seen up to this point (we now see tracking shots of Héloïse’s front and Marianne’s back.)

To review Marianne’s and Héloïse’s first meeting, shots mostly hover at eleven seconds or under. They are dominated by medium distance tracking shots with a single character near the center of the frame. Keeping both women visually apart and in shorter takes emphasizes their emotional distance. However, the midsection shift to longer takes, a shared frame, and a stylish shot in profile foreshadows that the characters will eventually bond with each other.

Image D

At the onset of Marianne’s and Héloïse’s second encounter (starting at roughly twenty five minutes from the film’s beginning), the opening shot distinguishes itself from any in the characters’ previous meeting. In a long take (45 seconds, image D), the camera starts with a closeup of Marianne’s right side, slowly panning rightward to focus on Héloïse.

Image E

For the next shot, the camera cuts wide to capture Héloïse from the front as Marianne enters the frame, and both characters sit on the beach (image E). It’s another long take at 32 seconds.

Thanks to these two shots, director Sciamma and DP Mathon upend the visual language established in the characters’ previous encounter. Instead of short, fragmented views of characters in isolation, we connect the two women visually with a pan and give shots plenty of breathing room where Héloïse and Marianne share the frame together. It’s another sign of the relationship developing between the two women.

Image F

The characters begin to converse, and we revert to the medium length shot reverse shot pattern, the effective camera technique in Marianne’s and Héloïse’s first meeting (image F). The conversation ends notably, however, with a pan downward from Marianne’s eyes to Héloïse’s hands. It’s a subtle reminder of Marianne’s reason for being here in the first place: Marianne has to scrutinize Héloïse’s features to capture them in portraiture.

Image G

Marianne and Héloïse’s third meeting begins less than two minutes after the previous one ends (at roughly thirty minutes into the film). The encounter opens with a shot of Héloïse’s hands playing with a string, drawing a visual connection to how the characters’ previous conversation ended. The camera then pans up as Marianne sits beside Héloïse and proceeds to hold the shot for over two minutes (image G). Effectively, the entire scene is an unbroken two shot that runs for two minutes and 42 seconds, one of the longest shots in the film. As the two women converse and open up emotionally, we can see their reactions to each other in real time. It’s stage-like in its approach, giving the moment almost entirely over to the actors’ performances and dialogue.

In reviewing all three “walk and talks” analyzed in this post, it’s clear the filmmakers’ had a multitude of options regarding camera placement and shot duration. They could choose to film all three scenes in extended long takes like Marianne’s and Héloïse’s third encounter. That would generate its own minimalist aesthetic, one that would put almost all the emotional heft on the two actresses. It may be a test of the audience’s patience, but the film could easily pull it off.

Or Sciamma and her collaborators could hew closer to the vibe of the characters’ first encounter: shorter POV tracking shots, mixed in with profile shots leaning on rack focus and narrow depth of field. It gives the cinematography more subjective weight, not to mention a more familiar look to modern indie audiences.

But a consistent camera style wasn’t the filmmakers’ choice. Instead, we see a brilliant progression of cinematic technique as Marianne and Héloïse grow more intimate. Shots start as fragmented, fleeting, with noticeable editing. Then the camera leans more on pans than cuts and on wider angles to capture both women side by side. And in their third encounter, the two women share the frame in a single, mostly static take for several minutes. It’s as though the camera itself “settles down” to give the relationship at the center of the film room to breathe. It’s a series of aesthetic choices that fold beautifully into the slow emotional build of the entire film.