Out lesbian director Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” opening Feb. 21 at the Ritz Five, is an exquisite, exceptional romantic drama. Set in the 1700s, the film opens at an art school where Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is teaching drawing. Her attention, however, is suddenly arrested by the titular painting, and the film flashes back to the time when Marianne was commissioned to paint Héloïse (Adèle Haenel).
As Marianne arrives in Brittany, she slowly comes to understand the dynamics of the family she meets and her situation. Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), the servant of the household, explains that Héloïse has recently returned home from a convent as her sister has passed. As Marianne comes to learn, the death may have been a suicide. Moreover, Héloïse’s mood is glum as she is engaged to be wed to a Milanese man; she has no interest in the wedding. As a condition of the marriage, Héloïse’s mother, La Comtesse (Valeria Golino), wants her daughter’s portrait painted — without her daughter’s knowledge.
Marianne feels up to the artistic challenge. She comes to observe Héloïse by escorting her on walks along the cliffs and shoreline. As the two young women slowly get to know one another, Marianne studies her subject intently, stealing away to sketch Héloïse’s hands to paint later. She also plays piano for Héloïse as a way of bonding with her. These scenes build the sexual tension between the women. Marianne is transfixed by Héloïse’s beauty, and yet, the artist does not act on her attraction. She expresses her desire in her work. However, Héloïse, upon learning the truth about Marianne’s role as a portrait artist (and not her companion), dislikes the painting and requests another be done. La Comtesse leaves for five days, and the painting is required to be completed by her return. Of course, the women fall in love while alone together.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a sparse, elegant, and seductive period drama, where the characters slowly and subtly reveal themselves to each other. There is more said by what the women do not express to each other that what they actually say. When Héloïse asks Marianne if she has ever known love, her curiosity is coded. Likewise, a discussion of the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus is a metaphor that plays out in the film.
Sciamma’s drama is as much about how others see us as it is about the images we project, the image of ourselves that we control, and what we show others about ourselves. Once Marianne is bewitched by Héloïse, she fantasizes about the object of her affection in a flowing white gown. When the two women finally kiss, it is electrifying; the desire between them burns slowly over time.
The filmmaker is also attentive to the roles of women in society in the era. Marianne explains how she cannot paint nude men because of her gender, and Héloïse appreciates convent life because there is an “equality” living among women. A subplot involves Sophie, who is pregnant, trying to lose her baby through some drastic actions and with the help of an abortionist (a compelling if hard to watch sequence.)
The emphasis on gender roles helps generate sympathy for the characters, who try to assert their desires. Thankfully, the film does not rely on the hoary plot device of the lovers being discovered. Their relationship is finite, given the arrangements made by La Comtesse. That creates sufficient drama.
There is considerable pleasure in watching the women kiss and cuddle in mildly sensuous scenes or when Marianne gives Héloïse a drink of water by passing the liquid from mouth to mouth. And as in every good romance, the lovers fight, causing minor tension in their relationship.
Sciamma takes care not to overemphasize any of the romantic elements, which is why her film is so compelling. The story may unfold at a leisurely pace, but that is part of its charm; the characters are well developed that there is anticipation in Marianne finding a way to make Héloïse smile. And it is clear why a scene of Héloïse “on fire” is so vivid for Marianne.
The performances are also strong, with Merlant doing standout work as Marianne. Her expressions through the film convey her burgeoning desires. Her release once she and Héloïse connect is palpable. In support, Haenel gives a lovely performance as the enigmatic Héloïse. She also has a remarkable final scene (although it echoes “Call Me by Your Name.”)
The film’s costumes are fabulous, and the cinematography is crisp. Sciamma artfully frames her shots, from Marianne naked in front of a fireplace to the first time Héloïse is seen from behind — a mysterious woman in a vibrant blue cape.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is an exceptional drama that creates tremendous emotions as it depicts the relationship that develops between these two women. The film’s coda, which recounts an episode later in the lives of the characters, is also highly satisfying. Don’t miss it.