Starring Noémie Merlant. In French, with English subtitles. Rated PG
“Regarde-moi” is said more than a few times in this spectacularly French blend of fable, gender study, and treatise on the gaze, and gazees, in art history.
As you might deduce from the title, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is rife with cultural references, from the fraught formalism of Henry James to the gothic swoon of the Brontë sisters and on toward Francis Bacon’s fatally singed subjects. This gorgeously crafted 18th-century tale is also shot through with Greek mythology, with the hellbound tale of Orpheus and Eurydice front and centre.
The Orpheus heading below this ground is that rarest of historical creatures, a successful female painter, named Marianne, as in the French symbol of freedom. And like Artemisia Gentileschi, this artist was trained by her father, and later supplanted him. Marianne is played by dark-haired Noémie Merlant, who indeed resembles a Greco-Roman statue come to life. She’s been hired by an elegant countess (Rain Man’s wonderful Valeria Golino) to visit a remote island villa, off the coast of Brittany, to paint a likeness of her headstrong daughter, and ship that not-so-Instagram to a rich suitor in Italy.
The problem is that young Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) does not want her portrait done. She has, we’re told, “already gone through one painter”—although we never get the back story on that. Now Héloïse has found her Abelard in Marianne, who has agreed to paint her without the subject knowing it. This results in some very dedicated gazing, as well as much verbal parrying near the isle’s steep cliffs. Both were raised in convents, and have conflicting views of forced female companionship. Questions of class hierarchy enter as these principals are drawn to each other and to the initially meek maid (Luàna Bajrami), who introduces them to a hidden world of peasant women possessing their own remedies and music, as heard in one of the most remarkable scenes.
Writer-director Céline Sciamma, who previously assayed more contemporary studies with Tomboy and Girlhood, here strikes the perfect balance between smart social parable, formal composition, and soulful contemplation of the tools—and limits—of art itself. This approach is beautifully abetted by Vermeer-savvy cinematographer Claire Mathon, who also shot the recent prizewinner Atlantics and here takes the most painterly approach to light and texture since Barry Lyndon. None of the high culture gets in the way, however, of a two-hour spell that is by turns clever, spooky, and effortlessly erotic.
And, like any good Socratic exercise, this Portrait leaves you with more questions than answers. Are the participants only drawn to women, or are they responding simply to what they see in each other? At the end, is Héloïse crying because she’s thinking of Marianne, or because she’s hearing a full orchestra for the first time? It all depends on how you look at it.