Early in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a 30-ish woman arrives in an open boat on the beach of a lonely island somewhere along the coast of France. The year is 1770. It’s a rough trip; a wooden box falls overboard, and since none of the men rowing care about it, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) jumps into the heaving swells – in her dress – to rescue it. Then, in her wet dress, she hauls herself up a steep hillside and hikes to a castle, which feels isolated and difficult.
The job is even tougher. Marianne is supposed to paint a portrait of Héloise (Adèle Haenel), so that the mother of Héloise can show it to a rich man in Italy who may marry her, if she looks good enough to him. But Héloise refuses to sit for the portrait, mostly because she refuses to marry the man.
So, Marianne has to study Héloise and paint in secret. She observes her facial movements, the configuration of her hands and the extraordinary haughtiness of how Héloise sits ramrod straight and looks down at people. She wears a constant pout, as if she’s furious with the world, which she is.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which in its original French is the more accurate “Portrait of a Young Girl on Fire,” is about the intimate relationship between a painter and her subject. As things turn out, Héloise also studies Marianne, and a relationship that was cold and even hostile, begins to warm. They talk about things that matter to them, like marriage and in a profound sense the meaning of freedom. In another sense, the film is about two women sizing each other up – but for what stays unclear for a long time.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire looks like it’s seen through the eye of a painter, which it is. Marianne in orange/red walks on the beach with Héloise in dark blue, both of them set against the beige of the sand, the light blue of the sky and the dark gray of the sea, which always seems agitated. Indoors, the colors of their clothes stand out against the persistent stone gray of the castle’s walls.
And all of this rests on the bedrock of a feminist vision that for the most part excludes men. After just four features, director Céline Sciamma has a reputation for her interest in women’s desire – which is obvious in Portrait of a Lady on Fire – but it’s more than that. Except for one quick moment at the end, there are no men in this place. Women do all the work; there’s a cook and a housekeeper. Héloise’s mother, off in Italy for most of the picture, mentions a nearby village, but in their walks along the beach or the high cliffs above the water, or in the nooks and crannies and caves carved by the sea, there’s no sight of other people at all.
The movie is set in the 18th century and clearly in France, but for an audience in 2020, Portrait of a Lady on Fire feels completely out of time and place. It’s like a dream world, perhaps in the mind of Marianne the painter. And, in fact, the story begins in a painting class in Paris where Marianne’s young girl students ask about a curious painting against a wall of the studio. So, the rest of the story is in Marianne’s mind. She’s still pretty young, but her story takes place so very long ago, and so far, away, and apparently her love for Héloise still dominates her memory.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is made with precision and care. It’s subtle and delicate – and I wonder if it’s too subtle and delicate. In the long stares and contemplations, sometimes it feels as if the movie is barely there at all.