Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the most beautiful and transporting films you will ever see. The titular subject is Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a reluctant bride-to-be who refuses to sit for a wedding portrait commissioned by her French Countess mother (Valeria Golino) in 1770. Subterfuge is the order of day as mom instructs the artist, Marianna (Noémie Merlant), to study her daughter by posing as her companion on her daily cliffside walks, then painting her from memory in secret. The artist falls under the spell of her subject, until she’s lost in obsession. The sexual tension is palpable as Héloïse, who is just out of a convent and furious that her mother has arranged to marry her off to an Italian nobleman, begins to return Marianna’s interest. And though the film sizzles with an erotic heat that grows from initial repression, Sciamma is not pedaling softcore lesbian porn. Her film is about the heady experience of an impossible first love and the transfixing power of art to capture with paintbrush and canvas the in-the-moment intimacy of flesh and spirit.
Shot on a remote island off the coast of Brittany, the film brings a hothouse fervor to the women’s connection. Equally fascinating is the way Sciamma shows us Marianna revising her painting again and again — the early versions soften Héloïse’s sharper features and vivid stare. “When do we know it’s finished?” Héloïse asks the artist, who avoids completion as if that would put an end to the relationship itself.
The blazing performances of Haenel and Merlant could not be better or more attuned to the cadences of a secret love. In one stunning sequence, Marianne, Héloïse and the countess’s maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) read the tragic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, about another doomed passion. But here on this island, where the rule of patriarchy is powerfully felt but rarely seen, Héloïse and Marianne can create a shelter from the outside world and the melancholy of love’s impermanence.
Some critics have referred to the film as “Call Me by Your Name with corsets.” But Sciamma, whose exemplary work on Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood mark her as a major talent, paints the movie with unrivaled delicacy and feeling. From the costumes by Dorothée Guiraud to the stunning camera work by Claire Mathon (who deservedly won the cinematography award from the New York Film Critics Circle), Portrait of a Lady on Fire is enthralling on every level. In her hypnotic and haunting film, alive with humor, heartbreak and swooning sensuality, Sciamma has created nothing less than a timeless work of art.