Céline Sciamma's gorgeous period love story "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is a marvel of a film. Exploring the slow-burning romance between two women -- a young bride-to-be (Adèle Haenel) and the artist hired to paint her wedding portrait (Noémie Merlant) -- it's a pitch-perfect blend of exquisite visual storytelling and raw emotion, with two indelible performances from its lead actresses.
Set in 18th-century France, the film begins as Marianne (Merlant) arrives on the coast of Brittany, where she's been commissioned by a wealthy countess (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter, Héloïse (Haenel). The finished painting is to be sent to Héloïse's prospective husband, a Milanese nobleman she's never met, for his appraisal and to further entice him into the union.
Héloïse is resistant to the marriage, and Marianne learns that the previous artist was unable to complete his painting, ultimately driven away by his subject's complete refusal to sit for him. So Héloïse's mother proposes that Marianne pose as a hired companion for her daughter, accompanying her on walks so she doesn't become lonely. During these visits Marianne must observe Héloïse as closely as she can, memorizing every minute detail of her figure and facial features to use later, when she picks up her brush to paint in secret each night.
Sciamma has called her film a "manifesto of the female gaze," and it is indeed a celebration of the act of looking. Through these extended looks, a desire grows between the women. Used to living in a society that has little interest in the interior lives of women, Marianne and Héloïse's courtship is carried out largely through glances, subtle gestures, and body language.
The director captures the way an artist's gaze both captures and wholly invents their subject entirely through the way in which the artist sees them. The film becomes a story of a woman expressing her desire through her art, but it in turn allows Héloïse to break free of the traditionally gendered role of muse to become something closer to a collaborator.
During the middle section of the film, Héloïse's mother must leave for an extended period of time. On their own (along with the housekeeper Sophie, played by Luàna Bajrami), the women are able to enjoy an almost utopian existence. In complete control of their lives for the first and perhaps only time, they're able to enjoy a newfound sense of liberty and freedom.
The roles they've been assigned to seem to dissolve naturally, as class and station don't seem to matter as much. The film examines the bonds of love and sisterhood as well as the divisions of class barriers, but there's an aching longing, extending from the knowledge that this existence is only temporary.
From films like "Tomboy," to "Girlhood" and "Waterlilies," Sciamma's specialty is tender coming-of-age stories. Every moment of her work here feels carefully considered and thought through. Her film is deeply sensual, alive with a crackling physical and emotional intimacy that matches the intensity of the women's passion.
It's also a celebration of the act of creation, and Sciamma's camera remains fascinated by the process of making art. Making smart use of insert shots featuring painter Helene Delmaire's hands, we're allowed to watch as Marianne struggles to translate the truth of her subject onto canvas. She works through drafts where her rendering of Héloïse isn't quite right, capturing her physical characteristics but still somehow lacking an ineffable something.
Fitting for a deeply-felt love story centered on the creation of visual art, the film is itself a gorgeous piece of visual art, and cinematographer Claire Mathon uses light in such a way that turns each frame into its own oil painting.
Interestingly, the film forgoes any sort of musical score aside from three key uses of diegetic music, including one memorable sequence where the lovers listen to a choir during an all-female gathering around a bonfire. The women's haunting song is an original piece of music, and it's unlike anything I've heard in a period film.
For all its issues, the Academy Awards' most useful function is in highlighting films that might not otherwise get the attention they deserve. So I couldn't help being a bit disappointed that after "Portrait" wasn't selected by France as the country's official submission in the International Feature category, it seemed to fall completely off the Academy's radar. Because it ended up not getting attention in any other categories, the film didn't benefit from that Oscar bump. But I sincerely hope audiences find it.
Anchored by two exquisite performances from Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is a simmering love story about desire, the female gaze, and the enduring beauty of art. Both intimate and expansive, it's a swooning romance that had me floating on a cinematic high leaving the theater. It's just so damn good, and undoubtedly my favorite film of the past year.
Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to [email protected].