Cinematographer Claire Mathon touches each scene like a painter herself, evoking the work of Jean-Baptiste Corot, who was a 19th century painter used as a reference for the film. Portrait varies from sparse, candlelit interiors, to the sway of the isolated landscape that surrounds the manor, yet Mathon doesn't rely on the light to lead the camera. Instead, the women themselves appear effused with their own light, like a painted portrait. There are moments you can almost touch the images, like in Marianne's nubbled rust dress, or the unforgiving stiff whisper of Héloïse's green one.
Sciamma plays with the idea of artist and muse, emphasizing instead the collaboration and meeting of intelligence between Marianne and Héloïse. It's the same sort of collaborative work that's on the fore here in her film -- a piece of art that is strengthened by the clear intelligence and skill of the actresses. It's a film that also subverts the so-called gendered gaze -- Marianne's piece is empty without Héloïse's spirit filling it. The women are equals here - their first moves toward each other are of their own will, and each glance is a give and take between the both of them. It's crucial for the film to work for Merlant and Haenel to be equals as well, and they both give powerful performances. The camera loves Héloïse, almost as much as Ingmar Bergman's camera loved Liv Ullman in Persona. It wants to unravel the mysteries of her face as much as Marianne does.
It's surprising to find that Portrait won Best Screenplay at Cannes, not because it makes such poignant use of silences (in a scoreless film, yet), but also because of how straightforward the dialogue is. It's refreshing in that it seems rare to find a queer romance where the characters never feel any shame, guilt, or doubt about their feelings. Portrait is simply about two women who fall in love with each other. The absence of a score highlights the few times we do hear music in the film, and each of those times is a jolt to the system; an opening of a sense we were unaware of.
Portrait actually bears several similarities to 2017's Call Me By Your Name, namely in the reverence of a memory or a love that isn't necessarily meant to last. It asks audience members to not regret, but to remember instead. While Oliver of Call Me By Your Name dreams of the whistle of a train that will eventually separate him from his love, Marianne is similarly haunted by the future's apparition, reminding her of the present's mortality.
That apparition, amongst a few other images, come off a little strongly at times in Portrait. It's a film that would do better with some restraint in those areas. Even without the third or fourth reminder of Orpheus, we can draw so much from the image of Marianne pursuing Héloïse, becoming familiar with the sight of her back. Sciamma doesn't seem confident in letting us find our own way, instead making sure that we know what that Orpheus imagery means, or what exactly was going on in Marianne's mind when she confessed to Héloïse that she has experienced love, or whether Marianne is sad or not thinking back on her memories. There's so much reward possible in allowing the imagery and the story to open itself to us, rather than have it explicitly reiterated.
Héloïse asks in the trailer, "Do all lovers feel they're inventing something?" And perhaps what she feels or what Sciamma depicts is not the most original or revelatory experience, but one that is beautiful in its shared moment. It's an experience that makes us all equals. Sciamma's film draws on influences as varied as Mulholland Drive and the powerful dynamics of women in Ingrid Bergman's work, but it is beautifully contemporary and lithe. From Marianne and Héloïse's first exchange of looks, where the camera allows a fluid give and take of their regard, they're found to be almost emerging from each other. It's a scene about their gazes, and Sciamma invites us in to be a part of that interplay with our own gaze.