“Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?” asks Heloise, a young woman experiencing romantic passion for the first time. It’s a beautiful line, but it’s also emblematic of the spirit of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” a film in which everything feels stunningly fresh, raw and new.
And it’s all happening in the 18th century, to boot. French director Celine Sciamma, known for far more gritty and contemporary films, has found a way to make a period film that feels so vital, at moments it seems it could spontaneously combust. Which is exactly what happens to Heloise’s dress at one point, a captivating and disturbing image that explains the title of this film.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a story of unexpected passion between two women. But it’s more than that; the film explores this forbidden love against a larger backdrop of the possibilities for female self-fulfillment in the late 1700s, through the story of a young artist, Marianne.
Female artists of the time, Sciamma has explained, produced work that hangs in museums around the world — and yet the outside world knows very little about them. Sciamma, who won the best screenplay award for this film at Cannes, seeks to honor these forgotten women.
It’s Marianne (a vibrant Noemie Merlant) that we meet first, the only woman traveling in a boatful of wordless sailors (virtually the only men who appear in the film.) When the wooden crate carrying her blank canvases falls into the ocean, she dives recklessly into the waves to retrieve it. Her canvases are her life.
Marianne arrives on a rocky beach (the craggy coast of Brittany, its wild beauty wonderfully captured here) and climbs a cliff to an isolated chateau. Its cavernous halls are inhabited only by three women: a widowed countess (Valeria Golino), her daughter Heloise (the appealing French star Adele Haenel), and Sophie, the maid (Luana Bajrami).
Marianne soon learns the true nature of her assigned task. She already knew she was to paint a portrait of Heloise, a sort of advertisement for an arranged marriage to a Milanese man. What Marianne didn’t know is that she would have to paint in secret.
That’s because Heloise, undoubtedly in silent protest of her fate, has refused to be painted, her mother tells Marianne; the previous artist failed, unable to capture her face. So Marianne’s job is ostensibly to be Heloise’s companion on daytime walks along the cliffs, and to paint at night, clandestinely.
At first, Heloise is happy with the arrangement, because it allows her to venture outside; her mother has forbidden her that freedom out of fear she will meet the fate of her older sister, who fell from the cliffs to her death (it’s strongly suggested that she jumped on purpose).
But Marianne, as she grows closer to Heloise, feels the need to reveal her true purpose. And when she shows her the finished work, a conventionally pleasing likeness, Heloise protests that she doesn’t look anything like the portrait. “I didn’t know you were an art critic,” Marianne responds angrily, explaining that in painting, there are certain rules and conventions. Deep down, she knows Heloise is right, and destroys her own work.
But then Heloise shocks everyone by offering to pose for a new portrait. When the mother leaves for an extended trip, the three women — Marianne, Heloise and maid Sophie — are left on their own, forming new and surprising bonds that transcend both convention and class.
But the main relationship is between Heloise and Marianne, and the way their ardor is allowed to slowly unfold onscreen is both heartwarming and, given the dismal prospects for a future together, heartbreaking.
Not to give too much away, but the final scenes of the film hurtle us into the world outside, beyond the isolated life in which this forbidden love was born. One of the last shots is a long, unforgettable look at one of the women, experiencing joy and sadness and relief and regret, all at once.
“Don’t go too fast,” a character says at one point in the film. “Take the time to look.” She’s speaking of the act of painting, but could just as well be advising us moviegoers, and she is right: Don’t watch this film too fast. Take the time to look.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” a NEON release, has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for some nudity and sexuality.” Running time: 121 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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