Marianne is a painter and art teacher commissioned by an aristocrat to produce a portrait of her daughter, Heloise, who is betrothed to an Italian man she has never met. The setting is an isolated island off the coast of France; the time is the late 1700s.
Heloise has no interest in marriage, and therefore no interest in such a portrait. The trick for Marianne is to paint Heloise from memory, as she will not pose.
Heloise has been living in a convent and has returned to her mother upon the apparent suicide of her sister. Marianne is passed off as a friend whose task is to accompany Heloise on her daily walks. During these walks, Marianne attempts to study Heloise’s face and body, imagining the detail she will put into her painting when the women return to the estate. Of course, Heloise soon picks up on the fact that she is being watched. Alternatively, Heloise begins to study Marianne’s face and features. While at first stilted and forced, the daily conversations between the two women grow in gravity and substance. Soon, Marianne and Heloise share a desire to know as much about one another as possible.
French director Celine Sciamma’s original screenplay, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” feels like it could be based on a novel of its time. The clothes and the social norms of the day lead us to believe we’re watching ancient history. And, in a way, we are. Arranged marriages have long been a thing of the past. But “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” somehow feels different – more modern, more socially aware than a typical period piece. As the two women grow closer, this film has shades of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” although a more accurate comparison might be Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 offering “Call Me by Your Name,” in which characters played by Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer fall in love during a summer in Italy.
Much as in that film, Marianne and Heloise take notice of the subtleties and nuances of each other’s every move, every twitch, every idiosyncrasy. But unlike in “Call Me by Your Name,” love isn’t predestined. There are the social norms of the day, of course, but I credit Sciamma for progressing this affection at a deliberate pace. By the time the two women fall in love, it feels natural – like a logical progression of the development of their relationship.
I also greatly appreciate the fact that their affair (consummated when Heloise’s mother is out of the country) is treated with respect and dignity. The sight of two women sharing a bed is never used to titillate or amuse, the way it would likely be in an American production. Sciamma does not see the love shared by Marianne and Heloise as something to laugh about or lampoon. It is presented as a mature relationship between two consenting adults.
As Marianne and Heloise, French actresses Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel are outstanding, and their characters are fully fleshed out, but their work is strictly in service of Sciamma’s screenplay – which is the real star of the show. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is perhaps the best foreign language film to come along since “Roma.” And unlike the Oscar-winning “Parasite,” this one doesn’t feel like an attempt to make an American film in another language. This one feels French – not only in the setting and the period costumes, but in the grace and decorum afforded the relationship.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is certainly not for everyone’s taste. It is the story of a lesbian relationship. It is passionate and serious about its subject matter. It is erotic without teasing; seductive without tantalizing. It is an excellent film for adults who might want to be challenged beyond the typical Hollywood fare. And it instantly propels Celine Sciamma into the upper echelon of active directors.