Portrait of a Lady on Fire (not quite a literal translation of the French title, Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, but I’ll let it slide) is the kind of film that can stink of medicine to some viewers. It’s French. It’s a period piece, set in the late 1700’s. It’s moody and filled with long, wordless passages. Must be “good for you.”
But here’s the deal. Portrait of a Lady of Fire is so ravishingly beautiful, meticulously realized, and intensely felt that it positively leaps off the screen. This is far from a highbrow snooze. This is one of the finest romances ever filmed. Maybe the finest.
With its two female leads, it’s consequently an examination of the way women must navigate a society not designed for them to thrive. Plus, it’s an adept portrayal of the ever-mysterious artistic process, sometimes recalling Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse, without feeling the need to stretch out for four hours like that film.
As the main character Marianne, Noémie Merlant immediately strikes the viewer as a woman with something to prove. It turns out that Marianne is a portrait painter, who is essentially inheriting the family business from her well-established father. Her determination is deftly dramatized early on, when she leaps out of a rowboat to retrieve blank canvases that have slid out into the water. As she does, the men at the oars simply look on.
Marianne is matched in stubborn determination by her intended subject, a sheltered rich girl named Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Héloïse has been promised by her mother (Rain Man‘s Valeria Golino) to a wealthy man in Milan. The portrait is intended for him, so he can approve his acquisition before sending for her. Adding an additional layer of grossness to this arrangement, Héloïse is actually serving as a replacement for her sister. Before her sister could be married off, she fell from a nearby seaside cliff to her death. Suicide, presumably: as the family’s servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) notes to Marianne, the sister didn’t call out as she fell.
Héloïse has already scared off one portrait artist, her mother informs Marianne, and she won’t sit to be painted (can one blame her?). So, Marianne has to pretend to have been enlisted as Héloïse’s walking companion. She must memorize her subject’s features then sneak off to paint her at night. This is a storytelling masterstroke, because the furtive glances of the clandestine artist are essentially identical to those of a would-be lover. Before long, the artist and the lover become one and the same.
Writer-director Céline Sciamma started a relationship with Adèle Haenel in real life, after they worked on the film Water Lilies. It’s impossible not to imagine that Marianne’s struggles to create a work of art based on the object of her blooming affection takes some basis — emotionally, if not factually — from this experience.
The romance between Marianne and Héloïse is unrushed. Héloïse is culturally starved, being cooped up by her mother, and she initially connects with Marianne over books and music. They discuss their different lots in life, both hemmed in by societal expectations of the kind of women they are supposed to be.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire portrays the anguish of not being able to be with the person you love so exquisitely that viewers might wonder if Marianne and Héloïse will be thwarted till the end. But these characters are too willful for that to be the case. In the film’s second half, the women carve out their own secluded space to be themselves. And in that space they can be truly creative — and they can consummate their love. It’s triumphant. And it’s hot (without being crass or exploitative).
In all senses, this is a beautiful film. Claire Mathon’s cinematography is — yeah, I’ll say it — painterly in its sensitive exploitation of soft light and shadow, creating a uniquely sensual space for the characters to inhabit. The chemistry between Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel is intoxicating, but Luàna Bajrami’s Sophie should not be discounted as a warm and ingratiating partner-in-crime. Valeria Golino, too, is perfectly cast as the forgotten trophy widow looking to return to the glamorous life through her daughter’s marriage. Sciamma’s direction is concise and elegant, and it never gets bogged down in beauty for its own sake.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is alive, in the best and sweetest and saddest ways. See it as soon as you can.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens in New York and Los Angeles for a one-week awards-qualifying engagement, beginning Friday, December 6. It returns in wider release on Valentine’s Day.
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Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.