French auteur Céline Sciamma patiently weaves a powerful spell with her fourth feature film, the mesmerizing “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Within the strictures of the repressive patriarchy of 19th century France, she immerses the audience into a fleeting feminine utopia, a short but sweet glimpse at what life could be, wrapped up in a heady, heartfelt love story between an aristocratic lady (Adèle Haenel) and the woman hired to paint her engagement portrait (Noémie Merlant).
Marianne, dumped unceremoniously on the shore of a sprawling and empty estate, is tasked with painting a portrait of Héloïse without her knowing it. So the women walk on the beach, getting to know each other, Marianne carefully observing her subject and snatching sketches when she can. The film is methodically paced, but it never feels slow. Sciamma holds your attention in the palm of her hand, gently guiding the viewer. The film unfolds like the painting of a portrait, starting with charcoal sketches and paint washes, daubs of color coming together into something like a likeness.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a stunning love story made all the more powerful as seen through the double female gaze of Sciamma and her cinematographer Claire Mathon. The difference between this film and other notable recent cinematic depictions of love stories between women that are directed by men is stark. Sciamma focuses on the hearts and heads of the women, the heat between them visualized often with crackling fireplaces, candles, tobacco pipes and bonfires. In the moments just before they kiss, or after, the tension is strung as tight as a wire.
But this is not just a film about love between women, but a rumination on the sacredness of a feminine space and the nature of art created by and for women. The characters are frank about their struggles: Héloïse, brought back from the convent to marry the man intended for her sister, who committed suicide, is angry at her lot; Marianne speaks to her frustration that she can’t paint men, and therefore can never create what would be considered great works.
But for a fleeting few days, while Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino) is away, in this space of nubile femininity, they do create great works by and about women. In a remarkable scene, Heloise urges maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), recovering from an abortion, to pose with her for Marianne late at night. She assembles a vignette stolen from a moment earlier in the day, with Sophie on her back in her underclothes, the midwife applying an abortifacient between her legs. With this quick painting, they’re telling the lived stories of women, the way Sciamma does in her film.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is richly layered and almost meditative in its pace, but the film stops to observe breathtaking moments of overwhelming beauty. A shot of the three women in the kitchen, drinking wine, sewing and cooking, silent and contented in their protected warm hearth is simple but unforgettable, as is a scene at a bonfire feast where peasant women from the village have gathered. Slowly a low tone rises in the air as they raise their voices in a hypnotic folk song, with perfect harmonies and percussive clapping.
These moments and days are temporary, but Sciamma treats the time and space with attention, care and utmost artfulness, rendering it divine forever. Regret? No, they’ll remember, and you’ll have a hard time forgetting the power of the images Sciamma conjures in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
‘PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE’
Cast: Adèle Haenel, Noémie Merlant, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino.
Directed by Céline Sciamma.
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.
Rated R for some nudity and sexuality.