Gentle, even brushstrokes grace every frame of writer-director Céline Sciamma’s balletic Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The film’s late 18th-century setting shrouds Portrait’s central couple in secrecy. Secluded sea caves and daily walks replace traditional courtship for its passionate lovers. Sciamma’s love story is set at a comfortable simmer without ever boiling over.
Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter, is tasked with painting Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) without her knowing. Héloïse’s mother, the Countess (Valeria Golino), recruits Marianne to paint a portrait to woo a potential suitor. Héloïse is living on an island near Brittany with her maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), when Marianne arrives disguised as a walking companion.
Héloïse, mourning the death of her sister, is resistant to marriage. Marianne accompanies Héloïse on her walks, memorizes her face, shares in conversation, and observes the island’s towering cliffs and thunderous swell. Before long, Marianne and Héloïse trade curiosity for a gradual affection.
Portrait owes its orderly, exquisitely lit interiors and the merciless beauty of its landscapes to the painterly eye of French cinematographer Claire Mathon (Atlantics). An azure ocean rages against the laguna yellow of the island’s sandy shore. When Marianne and Héloïse finally embrace, it’s a color wheel clash. The colors contrast like their personalities: the aloof, discerning Marianne, and the spirited, freewheeling Héloïse.
Once in a relationship, Sciamma and Haenel could easily project as the film’s watchful artist and enigmatic muse. The camera’s eye follows Haenel as if it were Sciamma’s own. Mathon’s female gaze provides a cautious, tender framework for the director’s vision. Calling Portrait of a Lady on Fire a slow burn is apt, if not a little too on the nose, considering the title.
The film forgoes a score in favor of the hollow creeks of an old floorboard, the cadence of the surf, and the howling gusts of the beach. Coming in just under two hours, Portrait consumes plot like a cow carefully considering its cud. The movie is a slow dance, but it’s never subsumed by dreaded boredom.
In a four-person cast, Merlant, Haenel, Bajrami, and Golino are a highly capable skeleton crew. Merlant, the attentive onlooker, and Haenel, the mysterious subject, dominate the screen, but Bajrami’s multifaceted maid receives an unforgettable, compelling subplot.
Most artists paint their Lady with an Ermine before their Mona Lisa. Portrait, Sciamma’s fourth feature-length film, is intimate, heartrending, and painfully poignant. Although Portrait isn’t the director’s singular masterpiece, the results, especially its breathtaking ending, are worth marveling at.