With movies, as with people, sometimes you just know within a couple of minutes that you’ve encountered something special, even if you can’t place exactly why right away. Something feels different, as if the film is giving off some kind of wave of warmth that’s transferring from the screen directly to the viewer. It’s magic, and you know it when you see it.
Celina Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is that kind of magic movie – a patient, intimate drama packed with gorgeous visuals and made with a level of care and attention to detail that most films can only dream of reaching.
Sciamma’s film reaches these heights of both visual splendor and emotional power on the strength of a simple but elegant setup, one that the film’s trailers give you right up front. A young painter named Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives at a remote home on the French seaside with a commission to paint Heloise (Adèle Haenel), the young woman who lives there, but there’s a problem. Marianne cannot ever tell Heloise that she’s painting her and cannot ask her to pose, because Heloise knows the resulting portrait will be sent off to help arrange a marriage she doesn’t want. Instead, Marianne must simply pose as Heloise’s walking companion, striding up and down the beach with her while memorizing her features so she can paint them at night. What begins as Marianne’s careful study of her face appears to Heloise like fascination, and she develops her own fascination with her new companion in turn. Fascination soon becomes obsession, and both women find themselves at odds with their assigned place in the world.
What’s most striking about the film, from the very beginning, is the sense of painterly composition in every frame. Sciamma is very aware of the kind of images her plot evokes, and rather than attempting to subvert our expectations there, she leans into them. Every scene gives us at least one, usually several, images that we could simply freeze frame on a television and leave up as a piece of art. It’s gorgeous, but the comparison to painting doesn’t stop there. Like Marianne, who obsesses over every detail, Sciamma herself takes her time bring all of these images together. The sight of carefully folded hands in a lap, or the way a bed sheet folds, or the cuff of a dress is often beautiful by itself, but as the film progresses each of these things becomes part of a greater whole in a way that suggests they are all sections of the same portrait, waiting to be revealed to us.
This careful sense of visual control, and the gorgeous compositions it produces, is made even more striking by the fact that almost the entire film basically unfolds in one location, two if you count the exterior and interior of the seaside house as separate places. There are only four major characters in the film, all women, and men only really appear during transitional moments in which we’re reminded that Marianne and Heloise are developing their relationship with the careful confines of a single environment. Put another way: It’s like they’re inside a romantic painting, and the moment that construction is breached by outside forces, the paint is smudged.
Within that ornate, beautifully crafted frame, Merlant and Haenel deliver flawless, endlessly vulnerable performances full of restrained passion exploding out in key moments. The illusion of this private world they get to build for themselves over the course of the movie allows Sciamma to essentially explore what life would be like for each of these women if a patriarchal fist weren’t waiting just outside prepared to clamp down on all their lives. The film’s two leads play this with a beautifully orchestrated sense of gradual change, as they first relax into their isolation, then revel in it, then dread when it will end. It’s a gorgeous emotional dance that gives the whole film a white-hot core.
“Portait of a Lady on Fire” is one of those rare films that so fully realizes what it sets out to do that it won’t leave your mind for days after you’ve seen it. It’s as close to perfect construction as movies can get. That doesn’t mean it’s for everyone, but if it is your kind of movie, prepare to fall in love completely.
‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is now streaming on Hulu.