In “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” a single look holds so much power and intensity that it might as well be an explosion. A film about looking – and being seen — this achingly romantic drama is such a constant burst of fireworks that it feels like the 4th of July.
Set on an island off the coast of Brittany, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter who is hired by an aristocratic woman to paint a portrait of her daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Set to be married off to a Milanese nobleman once he’s seen her portrait, Héloïse – who desperately doesn’t want to be married – has stubbornly refused to pose for the previous artists. At her mother’s request, Marianne pretends to be hired for the purpose of accompanying the lonely and isolated Héloïse on her daily walks, all while committing enough of her features to memory to paint her portrait in secret.
Céline Sciamma’s late 18th century romance is the sort of sumptuous, candle-lit outing that totally immerses you in the film’s every texture. The sheen of a green dress, the stroke of paint on a canvas — everything feels worthy of your gaze. But among the film’s countless visual splendors, nothing draws your eye more than the way Héloïse and Marianne look at each other. With a runtime of two hours, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is simmering with desire in its every frame. A slow-burn love story that is both erotic and distinctly feminine, so much of what heightens the sexual tension between Marianne and Héloïse is the way they discuss art, while thinking only of each other. They talk about their shared love of music; they debate the tragic story of Eurydice and Orpheus. But no matter the subject, passion is always present. Silence is just as meaningful as the conversations the two women share. For every revelation they make, there’s something that’s not being said. For every look of longing, there’s a touch that’s being denied…until it isn’t.
Sciamma takes her time unfolding the relationship, brilliantly mirroring their progress through Marianne’s attempts at capturing Héloïse’s spirit on canvas. Every shift in dynamic between them happens slowly and delicately, with a painterly precision. And all the while, we know that this can’t last. The painting is what brought them together, and its very purpose is to tear them apart. In “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, looks and passion can be fleeting. But when a painter authentically captures its muse, that work of art burns brightly and forever.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” opens at Miami Dade College’s Tower Theater Miami this Friday. For more info, click here