When Marianne (played by Noémie Merlant), the heroine of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, paints, the viewer can feel every dab on the canvas and hear every brushstroke as her workmanlike effort creates a graceful piece of art. After a while, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the woman Marianne is painting, sidles up to gaze at what she’s produced. “When do we know it’s finished?” Héloïse asks. “At one point, we stop,” Marianne replies. As the film progresses, artist and subject are drawn into a romance that fuels the former’s talent but, because of 18th-century close-mindedness, is doomed to end. The story’s crucial tension lies in Héloïse’s question: not knowing when that end will come.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is primarily a romance. But it’s also a film about the deeply personal process of creativity—the pain and joy of making one’s emotions and memories into a work of art. The film is a grand leap forward for Sciamma, already one of France’s most exciting emerging directors. For me, it is the most enthralling cinema experience of the year.
Sciamma’s first three films—Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011), and Girlhood (2014)—were all contemporary tales of adolescence and coming of age in modern France, told with frank sensitivity. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a level more ambitious, mostly because of its dramatic setting: a remote island off the coast of Brittany in the late 18th century. Marianne, the daughter of a celebrated painter, is brought over from the mainland by a countess (Valeria Golino) who is desperate to marry her daughter Héloïse to a Milanese nobleman. The match requires a portrait, but Héloïse has refused to sit for one, so Marianne is contracted to pose as her companion while secretly painting her from memory.
It’s a convoluted setup for a complicated relationship, in which Marianne is compelled to observe every intricacy of Héloïse’s personality and movements in order to capture her spirit in a portrait. Over and over again, the camera switches to Marianne’s point of view as she picks up on subtle things about Héloïse—the way she walks, the way her hair moves, the way she positions her arms as her mood changes—that find their way into Marianne’s painting. Eventually, Héloïse learns the truth about Marianne’s assignment. Meanwhile, the artist’s professional observation turns into something deeper and more tender, an attraction that is deeply felt rather than merely imitated on canvas.
Both Marianne and Héloïse are remarkably free spirits for their era, the former earning her keep as an artist and the latter refusing to submit to her mother’s attempts to marry her off. But their independence is itself confined; their relationship can flourish on this remote island, but would never be condoned by the outside world. So Portrait of a Lady on Fire becomes an elegy for passion burning brightly before it’s snuffed out, and a demonstration of how art can memorialize that depth of feeling.
At one point in the film, Marianne, Héloïse, and the countess’s maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) read the tragic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Orpheus nearly succeeds in rescuing his true love from the underworld but traps her there forever when he turns around for one last look at her. Sophie is outraged at his foolishness, but Héloïse understands. He’s picking the cherished memory of his partner over an uncertain future—a sad choice but an undeniably poetic one.
Though the mythic forces of the underworld are not at work in this film, the practical impossibilities of Marianne and Héloïse’s romance function as a similarly insurmountable barrier. Despite this undertone of sadness, the script and the central performances are alive with desire and delight—there’s energy pouring out of every scene Marianne and Héloïse have together. In a film told with sweeping visual scope, Sciamma plunges the viewer into a story and setting of the deepest intimacy. The final result is invigorating but tragic, a snapshot of the inevitable, painfully beautiful ending that Marianne predicted.