The fourth feature from writer-director Céline Sciamma is arguably her best work yet. A riveting tale of love and desire, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is as hypnotic as the painting within it that carries the film’s name. Set in Brittany, France, 1760, Sciamma’s film follows Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter, as she is commissioned to do a wedding portrait of bride-to-be Héloïse (Adèle Haenel).
The daughter of an Italian noblewoman (Valeria Golino), and having recently left the convent, Héloïse is opposed to the pending nuptials. Still grieving the loss of her sister, the reluctant bride refuses to sit for any portrait that further promotes the union. Posing as a hired companion, in order to observe Héloïse during the day and secretly paint her by night, Marianne soon finds herself conflicted about her role. As the pair bond over walks and intellectual discourse, neither one can deny that passion that is about to bubble to the surface.
Sciamma takes her time in exploring the women’s budding romance. The measured pacing allows one to study each finely crafted frame with the same inquisitive intensity that Marianne and Héloïse have when observing each other. The richness of female gaze pours over every inch of the film, creating an atmosphere that is filled with both nervous anticipation and immense sensuality.
Thanks in part to the wonderful cinematography, Sciamma is able to give simple things, such a well-placed mirror, far deeper significance. The strong visuals also further emphasize the limitations of the women’s circumstances. Even in their passionate moments alone Marianne and Héloïse are constantly aware that they are on borrowed time. A work of art that is equally beautiful and heartbreaking, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an exquisite love story.