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Movie Review: 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'

Directed by: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Valeria Golino, Luàna Bajrami
Available on YouTube, Hulu
Rated R, 122 minutes

In many ways, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a familiar movie. The forbidden-romance drama, set in 18th-century France, follows a straightforward arc at a slow, deliberate pace; if you’ve seen “Call Me By Your Name” or read “Wuthering Heights,” you’ll recognize the mood. But where “Portrait” sets itself apart is with its fierce and unyielding devotion to the women at its core. Writer-director Céline Sciamma (“Tomboy”) has crafted a love story to make other love stories look weak-willed, a powerful reimagining of cinematic womanhood, and a reminder that film can—and should—free us from our assumptions.

Noémie Merlant (left) and Adèle Haenel star in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” (Courtesy photo)

A young artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant, “Paper Flags”), comes to a secluded seaside estate, commissioned to paint a portrait of a countess’s daughter. The task proves harder than it sounds, as the young woman, Hèloïse (Adèle Haenel, “The Unknown Girl”), refuses to pose; so vehemently does she oppose being painted, in fact, that the countess (Valeria Golino, “Rain Man”), in an attempt to get the job over with, hasn’t even told her that Marianne is a painter. Under the guise of being a hired companion for walks around their cliffside grounds, Marianne sneaks glances at Hèloïse, studying her appearance in order to create her portrait, cobbling together a full picture of the young woman in secret.

Of course, by spending so much time with her subject, getting to know Hèloïse while furtively studying her individual features—the curvature of her ears, the way her hands lie in her lap, her serious mouth and piercing stare—it isn’t long before Marianne is in love. What begins as a decorous and cool relationship combusts suddenly, liberating both women from imprisonments both literal and figurative—Marianne from her staid and loveless existence, Hèloïse from the confinements of an arranged marriage to a Milanese noble she’s never met. Their affair is passionate but secret, and the portrait—which Marianne eventually confesses to—becomes the link by which they can keep their romance alive, even if they know they will have to part ways. As the portrait goes through multiple iterations, so do the women change with it, acknowledging that the painting doesn’t just offer a likeness of Hèloïse, but validates her and Marianne’s existence in a world that chooses not to see them.

The symbol at the movie’s core

That such a symbol lies at the core of a story about a lesbian affair is where the movie finds its greatest emotional heft. After all, the romance between Marianne and Hèloïse isn’t a matter of juvenile infatuation, or even likability. There is almost no flirting to be found; Hèloïse only smiles in a handful of scenes, and more often than not, Adèle Haenel’s virtuosic facial expressions convey nothing but deep despair and anger. When Marianne paints, we see her slow, methodical work, sometimes only a few marks in charcoal at a time. Sciamma, meanwhile, sets the movie in sparsely decorated rooms with bare walls, with few speaking characters.  There is hardly any score to speak of, with incidental music showing up in only a few key moments. No, this isn’t an effusive romance, not a sweeping love story with deep sighs and skyward glances, but Sciamma depicts the affair in its bitter simplicity anyway, exulting in its sheer existence. In one scene the lovers kiss, Sciamma’s camera so close that we can see only their lips and the thin strands of saliva suspended in air between them; the image is somehow as ecstatic as it is humble.

It almost goes without saying that “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” has a political axe to grind. Because more than a movie about love or queer experiences, the movie is about the power of women over their lives and bodies, and how that power gets traded with and without their consent. In the movie’s titular moment, the most transcendent scene of the whole film, Hèloïse steps too close to a bonfire and her dress catches fire. She steps away, making stern, unbroken eye contact with Marianne, and when she finally looks down to see the flames, she deliberately makes no move to put them out. It’s only a few seconds, but in an elemental and immortal way, she claims ownership, her steely gaze turned toward us in a gesture of confrontation: It’s a woman’s world, for once, and it’s fully and vitally aglow.

  Danny Eisenberg, a Bromfield graduate, lives and works in Denver, Colorado.

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