On an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the eighteenth century, a female painter is obliged to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman.

Director: Céline Sciamma
Writer: Céline Sciamma (screenplay)
Stars: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami

Subtitled in English


“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is also the portrait of an artist. Her name is Marianne and we first encounter her at sea, being conveyed in a rowboat over choppy waters toward a mysterious destination. When a crate containing two blank, stretched canvases is washed overboard, she dives in after it. Her self-sufficiency and resilience are confirmed as she arrives in a grand, austere chateau and starts to settle in. She sets the canvases to dry in front of the fire, smokes a pipe and makes her way down to the kitchen, where she helps herself to bread and cheese.

It’s the late 18th century, sometime before the French Revolution, and Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a professional portraitist, has accepted a semi-clandestine commission. Her subject is Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), and the finished painting will be sent to Héloïse’s future husband, a Milanese nobleman, as a kind of promissory note. The two have never met, and the picture will arrive in Milan before she does.

This arrangement has been made by Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino), who warns Marianne of certain complications. Héloïse’s sister, who had been betrothed to the same man, may have taken her own life to avoid the marriage. Héloïse has stubbornly defied her mother’s wishes and refuses to sit for a portrait. Marianne is instructed to present herself as a friendly companion, discreetly observing the other woman’s features and expressions and committing them to canvas in secret.

What follows is a subtle and thrilling love story, at once unsentimental in its realistic assessment of women’s circumstances and almost utopian in its celebration of the freedom that is nonetheless available to them. Céline Sciamma, the writer and director — her previous features include “Waterlilies” and “Girlhood” — practices a feminism without dogma or illusion. She takes as given the constraints facing Héloïse and Marianne and the burdens of inequality that affect Sophie (Luana Bajrami), a young household servant, but resists the temptations of melodrama or didacticism. This is less a chronicle of forbidden desire than an examination of how desire works. Like a lost work of 18th-century literature, it is at once ardent and rigorous, passionate and philosophical.

Apart from brief sequences at the beginning and end that frame the main narrative — most of what we see is, in effect, a flashback from Marianne’s point of view — the film never leaves the house and its surroundings. Once the boatman has dropped Marianne off on the beach, men disappear altogether. Male power is still a presence, but no one is around to enforce the rules of patriarchy. When Héloïse’s mother goes on a trip, Héloïse, Marianne and Sophie quietly remake the house into a place of solidarity rather than hierarchy. They play cards, share meals and discuss the meaning of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.

The full significance of that myth — an archetypal tale of devotion and loss — becomes clear later on. It’s the story of an artist, and also about the dangerous, irresistible power of looking. And while Marianne and Héloïse have much to say to each other, always using the formal French mode of address, Sciamma is equally attentive to the complex and shifting dynamics of beholder and beheld. There is a precision about who is regarding whom and what it means that is worthy of Claude Chabrol or Alfred Hitchcock.

Except, of course, that the possessive logic of the male gaze has been dismantled. Héloïse, the artist’s model and the object of Marianne’s attention, at first occupies a familiar position. Haenel, radiantly blonde with an enigmatic, neo-Classical face, fuses movie-star charisma with aristocratic poise. But Héloïse, when she finally submits to Marianne’s painterly scrutiny, hardly surrenders her own powers of observation. She is looking too, and the power of their mutual attraction refracts like light passing through a prism.

Painting isn’t the only art form Sciamma mines for ideas and analogies. There is literature and also music — not an added score, but a few moments of listening. The most powerful comes at a local village festival, where women gathered at a bonfire weave intricate harmonies around a simple Latin lyric. The words they sing — “fugere non possum” — translate as “we cannot escape,” expressing both fatalism and faith. They resonate through this smart and sensuous film in complicated ways. Héloïse and Marianne can’t escape from their feelings for each other, or from their socially dictated roles. But at the same time it’s impossible to see them as anything other than free.

– A.O. Scott, NYTimes