by Jake Kring-Schreifels
To experience Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is to observe a detailed painting coming to life. Over time, its sketch marks and broad dabs of paint begin to layer and blend, filling out a finished canvas full of detailed and vivid complexion — a slow burn that turns more beautiful the longer it heats. Movies often teach you how to watch them, and director Celine Sciamma, much like her two female protagonists, insists on your patience, your attention to detail and your openness. The rewards for submitting to this astonishing feature, which continued its North American festival circuit at the 57th New York Film Festival on Sunday, remain in the movie’s transcendent imagery that etches into memory.
That’s a primary theme in Portrait, which captures both the breadth of its seaside landscapes and the intimacy of its insular relationship with equal beauty. It takes place in a manor home in Brittany, near the end of the Ancien Régime, and follows an independent portraitist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), summoned to its cliffs to paint a young noblewoman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) without her knowing. Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino) hopes to send the portrait to a Milanese suitor, for potential wedlock, but Héloïse refuses to sit, in disarray from her sister’s recent and tragic death. So, Marianne spends her days pretending to be a walking companion and spends her nights painting her subject’s face from memory.
The task is one that requires particular attention — to eyes, to ears, to hands, the delicate and reflective pigmented flesh Marianne needs to remember as she begins oiling her canvas by candlelight. The first time they meet, Héloïse is cloaked in dark blue, refusing to uncover her identity, and runs to the edge of a cliff where her blonde hair and pale face is exposed. The light plays differently inside. Marianne enlists the cavernous chateau’s servant girl Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) to pose in dresses and keep the cloistered art project from Héloïse. Together they eat quietly at night, the crackling warmth of the fire glowing their faces like a Rembrandt. Sciamma’s painterly vision adapts to the camera’s surroundings.
a sexiness of consent
It’s not until Marianne reveals her identity and purpose that the movie takes on more color and life. Héloïse looks at her portrait and critiques its ineffective rendering — there is no verve, no energy. She decides to sit for Marianne, instructing another to be painted, and the pair spends the next week facing each other, peeking and then looking away, a professional flirtation that develops into something deeper. They share their own observations of each other — the way one raises her eyebrows, stares intently, breathes through her mouth — which becomes an introduction to seduction and a romantic relationship. The movie’s later reference to Eurydice and Orpheus plays as a metaphor for their fate: Marianne stares intently at Héloïse, knowing well her love will be lost, yet stay alive in her memory.
Following Sunday’s premiere screening, Sciamma noted the desire to create an environment that established a “sexiness of consent.” The movie’s decision to pair two women of mostly equal socioeconomic standing and mutual affection achieves that imperative. Without the hierarchical tropes dictating the arc of their relationship, Sciamma pulls us into the excitement of their affair. Her camera plays in close-ups, silhouettes and perspectives that depict their intimacy, capturing the spittle strands, cast in light, that connect their lips. She places special attention on the canvas itself, allowing Héloïse to come to life in charcoal and pencil as she lies in bed by the fire. The movie is tethered to their fleeting, sketched imagery in the same way the women cling to each other.
In the margins, the women tend to Sophie, whose own circumstances underscore the time period’s inequality. Her subplot doesn’t have narrative momentum, but it’s handled sensitively and without judgment. Though hardly any men appear on screen, art and commerce are still a man’s domains, even as the more popular salons of the time were slowly starting to recognize female artists. This fact gives their time together an urgency, and also the feeling that this arrangement is an oasis —and eventually, fatefully, a mirage.
As a way to further submerge the senses into the period, Portrait abstains from providing a soundtrack or score. Aside from a haunting a cappella song, harmonized around a bonfire by a group of neighboring women, the story, which Sciamma also wrote, lives in the creaks of the wood floors and cracks from the fireplace; it’s an effectively artless world until Marianne begins mixing her oils together. An early hint of Vivaldi that Marianne plays on an old harpsichord eventually recurs in the movie’s emotionally charged final act.
Still, there is plenty to be moved by without the stirring effect of an orchestra. The titular shot is as beautiful as you might imagine, and it may also require a second look, like many shots inside the world of this queer romance. Sciamma has made a movie about art but also its enduring nature — in other words, its ability to induce memory and feeling and passion. It’s hard to look away.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, in theaters December 6.
Here is the trailer: