Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire traces the romantic encounter of two women on an island off the French coast of Brittany, one an angry daughter trapped in a remote manor, soon to be married and shipped off to a Milanese man she’s never met, and the other a painter. In defiance of the nuptial arrangement, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) refuses to have her wedding portrait painted. Marianne (Noémie Merlant), the painter, is hired by The Countess (Valeria Golino) to pose as an outing companion to Héloïse, the daughter, while secretly painting her portrait. Marianne is expected to mentally soak up Héloïse’s features during their walks along the towering cliffs and rocky beaches below in order to paint her when they’re not together.
However, much to The Countess’s surprise, Héloïse takes fondly to Marianne and the two develop a very formal, understated friendship. They start spending more time together and, in the process, reach new depths of understanding with one another, though still in a very muted sense. Soon, Marianne finishes the portrait. She feels compelled to show Héloïse and tell her the truth. The Countess allows it, recognizing the bond that’s formed quickly between the two. Héloïse isn’t too upset about it, but she and The Countess both think the painting is subpar, inaccurate, and ultimately dissatisfying. Trusting Marianne as she does, Héloïse submits to posing if The Countess will allow Marianne another chance. The Countess commissions the second round and goes into the city, leaving the two women and Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), the estate maid, alone for five days to wrap up the portrait.
For this first hour or so, the film moves along at a snail’s pace, inching ever closer to the sensual tension that brews beneath the surface with stark tonal precision. Every small, quiet, seemingly trivial moment works wonders, drawing you deeper into the swelling ambiance of forbidden love. You feel it bubbling up in the tacit moments between Marianne and Héloïse. They fixate their unblinking eyes on each other with unremittent desire, emit stolid nervous ticks, and speak only in quick bursts of conversation, as if expressing too much would expose the vulnerability they crave from one another.
Merlant and Haenel’s performances are remarkable. It’s difficult to imagine the film, so reliant on discrete expression and hidden movement, working with any other actresses. Both have incredibly robust visages, as strong as they are passionate—including sharp jaw lines, high cheekbones, and piercing eyes. They both have a thick and luscious head of hair that’s usually pulled back into a neat bun or braid, an outward symbol of the inner restraint that cages them both romantically and culturally (as women in a staunchly patriarchal world). They wear period-appropriate dresses of solid colors, Marianne’s a rich russet and Héloïse a shadowy blue-grey, except when she’s posing, in which case she wears the plainest, most majestic emerald dress you’ve laid eyes on. The dresses are cut low at the collar to reveal smooth, elegant necks which lead down to sharply accentuated collar bones, every aspect of their appearance causing the other to ooze unspoken envy.
Sciamma wields their appearances brilliantly with an abundance of close-ups on face and body. Their faces communicate the mental and emotional gravity at stake and the relational evolution that accompanies it, while the bodies communicate a visceral yearning for intimacy, a carnal longing for love. It doesn’t matter how pronounced or still their movements are, Sciamma makes you feel everything they feel like you’re in a waking dream. When Marianne is frozen with a brush in her hand, her eyes darting back and forth between Héloïse and the canvas, the atmosphere is dense with ardor. And when Héloïse sprints fervently toward the edge of a cliff, a spliff of adrenaline and empathy invades your lungs and rushes through your veins. The mood is palpable every step of the way.
It will probably draw comparison to two recent films, Lucrecia Martel’s Zama and Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, for completely different reasons. As a deliberately unhurried, gorgeously shot, eerily still, nearly flawless period piece with a heavy beach presence, it brings Zama to mind. And as a totally engrossing, heartbreaking, and transitory queer romance, it’s hard not to think about Call Me by Your Name. However, as is the case with both films mentioned and any great film in their company, Portrait is a wholly unique treasure all its own.
The sound and color alone achieve astounding singularity. Sciamma uses textural sound to score the film, from the smooth scratch of a paintbrush on canvas to the crunch of stiff dresses in silent rooms to the husked smack of readied lips to the roar of the waves to the creaks and groans of the human body to the crackle of a fire. Likewise, she accentuates color to create an unparalleled tone. The baby blue walls in the house, the true blackness of night around a bonfire, the golden skin of the women in a warm yellow hue. Even on the beach, the colors are stunningly pronounced—khaki sands, cerulean skies, and an ocean made up of at least ten shades of hazy greens and blues. The cinematography is magnificent, too, as DP Claire Mathon never lets up in her pursuit of exquisite shot composition. Keep your eyes peeled for the nude pipe-smoking shot in front of the fire, the whack-a-mole shot in grassy dunes, the bird’s eye procedure shot with a baby, the armpit-confused-as-ass-hole shot (you certainly won’t miss this one), the opening canvas and paint shot, and many more that will stir you.
Sciamma’s screenwriting and direction deserve the credit from which every other aspect flows. Her characterization of Héloïse as the titular subject of the film is a magnificent example. She constantly adds little things to her story that make a world of difference in how we understand Héloïse as opposed to leaving her to the trappings of archetypal Hollywood damsels. She’s built as an exiled, angry, yet open woman, but through paint, she’s portrayed as a headless woman in an old failed portrait attempt, and, most noticeably, a calm woman on fire in another.
She is the enigma Marianne unravels throughout the film, at first bitter and lonely, but eventually, undone by the lawlessness of love, soft and kind. Even in her allowance to run out the doors unattended, she recognizes the loneliness that accompanies freedom, what she sarcastically calls the “charms of exile.” Marianne, on the other hand, is quiet and observant, almost like us. Her spectatorial and inquisitive nature is the lens through which we come to know the depths of Héloïse beyond what imagery can convey.
They share keen debates on art philosophy, sincerity, love, memory, and music, the latter three forming the holy trinity of the film’s thematic core. Lines like “Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?” are whispered softly in the dead of night and tiptoe into your psyche where you ask yourself the same question. Others like “Don’t regret, remember,” possess the film like an impassioned forlorn spirit and give way to poetic conversations about what it means to choose memory over love, and the romantic (or professional) agency of a woman.
But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Sciamma’s fourth film, among everything already mentioned, is the scant but titanic use of music. If it weren’t for every little phenomenal detail of the film, it would be worth watching for the two music scenes alone. If anyone is quick to dismiss the lack of score, they merely don’t understand the power of music as Sciamma intends to use it. The explosive, emotionally-packed moments—one with instrumentation and no voice and the other inversed—are utterly unforgettable. They’ll occupy your thoughts, your dreams, your fantasies, and, ultimately, the mass cultural lexicon of film history’s greatest moments.
Portrait begins as a still, stoic friendship and blossoms into a tender, compassionate romance, even a gushing romance at times. However, be warned that this is a poet’s romance, not a lover’s, as the film recognizes through some meta-commentary. And there’s a major difference between the two.