Producer: Bénédicte Couvreur    Director: Céline Sciamma   Screenplay: Céline Sciamma   Cast:  Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luana Bajrami and Valeria Golino  Distributor: Neon

Grade:  B+

Passion simmers beneath a solemn surface before bursting into the open in the last act of Céline Sciamma’s eighteenth-century feminist tale, which also speaks to the modern attitude toward same-sex love.  “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is beautiful to look at, and emotionally potent despite its period placidity.

The protagonist is Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter who’s introduced overseeing a class of pupils.  One of them uncovers a canvas by Marianne with the same title as the film, and it induces the artist to recall the circumstances behind it.  “Portrait” then becomes a long flashback to years past, and to a unique commission calling on Marianne’s expertise as a portraitist. 

She was hired by a Countess (Valeria Golino), who was once painted by Marianne’s father, to do a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), to be sent to a prospective husband in Milan.  She will have to travel to the castle on the coast of Brittany to paint the girl, who has recently been called home from a convent school.  And there is a further wrinkle: Heloise refuses to pose, so Marianne will have to pretend merely to be her companion, joining her on walks on the beach for example, and do the portrait secretly on the basis of her random observations during their time together.  The task had defeated a previous artist—a man—but Marianne thinks she will be able to manage it.

The Countess is soon called away on business, leaving the two women alone but for the maid Sophie (Luana Bajrami), who will not only enlist them in a joint effort to help her end an unwanted pregnancy, but will introduce them to the local women, who assemble on the beach to sing around a bonfire—an image of female solidarity that serves as the basis for the painting by Marianne with which the film began.

More importantly, however, Marianne and Héloïse will gradually grow fond of one another, despite the painter’s imposture, and affection becomes physical attraction.  The passion that results is reflected in a piece of music Marianne introduces Héloïse to—a tempestuous passage from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” which she tries to play on the castle’s barely-used harpsichord, much to . 

The music returns at the film’s end, years after the women’s brief encounter, when Marianne recalls the occasions on which she had contact with Héloïse again—once indirectly, through a portrait of the now-married woman with her daughter, in which a telling detail indicates that the subject has not forgotten the artist who’d painted her earlier, and secondly at a distance in a concert hall.  The sense of longing in Marianne’s recollections mirrors that of the older Héloïse we see in these scenes.

The title of Sciamma’s film, of course, has a double meaning.  It refers to the painting Marianne does of Héloïse on the beach, but also to the love that the two women felt—and continued to feel—for one another. But it also speaks to the bond among women in a society dominated by men, as has seemingly always been the case.  (It’s not without reason that the Latin lyric of the song the village women sing on the beach is “Fugere non possum”—“I cannot escape.”)

The performances by Merlant, Haenel, Bajrami and Golino are impeccable, and the images—Thomas Grezaud’s sets, Dorothée Guiraud’s costumes and the gorgeous locations, all captured in Claire Mathon’s luminous cinematography—equally so.  The stateliness of Julien Lachery’s editing is also an important contribution; nor should the score by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier and Arthur Simonini be overlooked. 

In “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” Sciamma has fashioned an offbeat period feminist fable that’s both visually exquisite and dramatically intoxicating.