The true quality of Céline Sciamma’s dazzling French romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire becomes clear long after the credits roll; it remains with you, powerfully and clearly, its genius unfurling as you get further from it. Sciamma, working in concert with cinematographer Claire Mathon, lead actresses Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, costume designer Dorothée Guiraud, and musicians Jean-Baptiste de Laubier and Arthur Simonini, creates a painting that will hang on the wall of the mind for days, weeks, and months after that initial viewing. You’ll think about every shared, fire-hot look between Merlant’s Marianne and Haenel’s Héloïse, about every roar of the cold ocean on the Brittany coast, about every stroke of Marianne’s brush as she tries to paint the beautiful, volatile Héloïse. You’ll think about the feminist haven they make, if only for a few days, on that far-flung island in the late 1700s. You’ll think about falling in love.
The film begins some time after the primary events of the film, showing Marianne giving a painting lesson to a group of young ladies. Then one of the students asks about a painting they found tucked away and covered over in Marianne’s studio. Marianne looks stricken and reveals the painting to be “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Then we’re sent back in time, and watch Marianne arrive on the rocky coast of a small island in a small boat. Sciamma and Merlant demonstrate Marianne’s determination and independence right off the bat, as we see Marianne jump into the misty, volatile ocean to retrieve some lost canvasses with little hesitation. From the beginning, we see that she is not only brave but also willing to fall headfirst into dangerous situations with little regard for her safety.
Marianne meets with The Countess (Valeria Golino, the Greek Italian actress who eagle-eyed viewers will recognize as the female lead from the Hot Shots! films from the early ‘90s), who we learn has commissioned Marianne to paint her daughter Héloïse’s portrait, which will then be sent to a nobleman in Milan as a promise of Héloïse’s hand in marriage. Héloïse has up to this point refused to sit for a portrait, as she does not wish to marry, so The Countess asks Marianne to go undercover as a “walking companion” for her daughter and then to paint in secret.
However, when Marianne interrogates the maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), she learns that the reason Héloïse needs a walking companion at all is that Héloïse’s sister “fell” from the island’s cliffs. Héloïse’s sister was engaged to the same Milanese nobleman that Héloïse is now promised to, and it is everyone’s secret belief that she killed herself to avoid the marriage. Héloïse was brought in from a convent as her replacement, and so the island not only reminds her of her impending, unwanted marriage, but also of her late sister.
From the moment Marianne and Héloïse meet, their chemistry is lightning. And though their relationship is filled with drama, from Marianne’s secret late-night painting to Héloïse’s volatile temperament, it never goes in any of the clichéd directions we’ve come to expect from romantic dramas. Instead, what unfolds is a wholly original blend of period romance and feminist fantasy. It’s an incredibly elegant film and feels old school in its attention to detail, but it is also bold in both its forward-thinking and its ability to find the sweet spot between being believable for its time period and satisfying to modern audiences.
To give away any more would be to spoil several surprises, some joyful and some devastating, but what should be said is that Portrait of a Lady on Fire is something to approach with as little expectation as possible (which is rich, I know, coming from a film review). It is surprising and romantic and somehow manages to be ahead of its time while also a well-researched period piece. The performances of the two lead actresses are exceptional, and Sciamma maximizes the chemistry between the two women by giving them the time and space to fully inhabit scenes. The screenplay, while clever and consistently surprising, is relatively spare, as the love story that unfolds here is one told through glances rather than speeches.
The film world is currently saturated with both cynicism and escapism, which is part of what makes the surprisingly hopeful but firmly realistic Portrait of a Lady on Fire all the more affecting. It’s a beautiful film, the rare cinematic experience to approach perfection, and it deserves to be as widely seen as possible.