Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★

In Céline Sciamma’s "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," the ache that drives its characters’ passion is love. The old sexual morality is gone, but the mysteries of love and isolation remain; availability cancels out the pleasurable torments of anticipation, but not the sadness afterward. With this new breed, Sciamma is able to define the romantic problem precisely and essentially. She doesn’t violate her principles to do it; her principles begin with freedom and pleasure. It offers an experience in the exercise of empathy. The characters empathize with each other, and we can empathize with them going through that process. The passion between the two women is instantaneous, electric, delightful and sometimes even solemn. It brings a life to the movie, which shows a dazzlingly inventive and audacious artist at a new peak.

In France, 1760, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young painter, arrives on an isolated island in Brittany. She has been commissioned to paint a portrait of a woman named Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who is to be married off to a Milanese nobleman. Marianne is informed that Héloïse has previously refused to pose for portraits as she does not want to be married. Marianne acts as Héloïse's hired companion to be able to paint her in secret, and accompanies her on daily walks to memorize Héloïse's features. The casual and innocent acquaintance, renewed on successive days, suddenly ripens into a deep affection by which both are shaken and shocked. For a brief spell, they spin in the bewilderment of conventions and their own emotional ties. 

While her mother leaves for Italy, Héloïse and Marianne's bond grows. They spend their evenings gathering around the household parlors, holding deep conversations about their hopes, their beliefs, and their dreams. The maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), is brought gradually into the lovers' circle of trust and in turn introduces them to a welcoming community of wise women that's been there all along. Only occasionally does a film come along where we get the sensation that actual creation is taking place before our eyes. That happens when the filmmakers are also in the art of creating, and transfer their inspiration to the characters in a sort of artistic ventriloquism. The moments of greatest intimacy between the simple peasant girl and the artist come when they sit side by side in wordless communication. Neither Marianne or Héloïse live an eventful life, but how many directors would have had Sciamma's confidence in taking this ultimately inconsequential story of a love that wouldn't have been tolerated in previous centuries, and realizing it in a style that dictates our attitude toward it? 

As the two women orbit one another, intimacy and attraction grow as they share Héloïse's first moments of freedom. Marianne's portrait soon becomes a collaborative act of, and testament to, their love. While there have been plenty of movie romances not unlike this, there's never been one told in such an ambitiously immersive way. The movie's transportive quality lies almost entirely with its lead actresses. They are committed to their roles to a degree that is exuberant. As the two lovers go, inevitably, out of the state of attraction and voraciousness and into a domesticity that presents the typical problems that an ingénue arrangement presents, Héloïse seems to grow up before the viewer's eyes in a way that makes Marianne's self-possessed confidence look kind of complacent.

The movie is told mostly in long tracking shots; by avoiding cuts between closeups and medium shots, Sciamma also avoids the film grammar that goes along with such cuts, and so her visual strategy doesn't load the dice or try to tell us anything. It simply watches. The cinematographer, Claire Mathon, summons all of her talents to romanticize the naturalism, yet the constant movement and long takes aren't petty virtuosity. They’re given the beautiful, solemn visual clarity of a Bergman film, and even some of the same eroticism of Bergman. There’s hardly ever a musical score heard throughout the film, which makes it all the more constructive. The one exception is a small sequence in which Marianne plays Vivaldi's “Four Seasons” on a harpsichord. Héloïse’s musical inquiries have been limited to the organ, and she claims that she never heard a full orchestra before. 

The psychological hangups that come through are fascinating, but the actresses’ largo movements and stilted lines don't release the material, they repress it. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel carry along an indefinite amount of grace and beauty; they are fresh and alive, and the movie is not an analyses of what went wrong in their relationship, but what blossomed. Consider Sciamma’s astonishing range of visual tactics. Marianne is haunted throughout the house by visions of Héloïse in a wedding dress. She knows the inevitable, and only has so much willpower to prevent it. Whenever the two get into a brief argument, their eyes seem somewhat misty, as if they are facing exactly what they feared out of the other person.

This is a quiet movie, shaken from time to time by ripples of emotional turbulence far beneath the surface. It will be enough for most viewers, as it was for me, to simply view "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" as an original and beautiful idea. To see it is to touch the extremes of human feeling. It is so personal, so penetrating of privacy, we almost want to look away. But, by some unexplainable force, we stay enveloped in this unforgettably sincere tale about two women and how they share a professional understanding that neither one has in any way with anyone else. The visual text requires a different set of expectations. We interpret it in the same way we interpret an actual painting: we trace back to face both history and ourselves.