An exquisitely realized story about forbidden love, forgotten art and the implicit power of a woman’s gaze, Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” shares its title with a painting by an 18th century Parisian named Marianne (Noémie Merlant). She’s an accomplished artist who inherited her trade from her father, though it’s typical of the attitudes of her era, among others, that her work is still often mistaken for his. This particular painting, however — of a young woman walking calmly on a beach, the bottom of her dress aflame — is one that Marianne has no intention of exhibiting under any name, as it turns out to have been inspired by a deeply personal memory.
The woman in the painting is Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), with whom Marianne had a passionate affair during several days spent together in remote isolation. For most of its slow-moving yet thrillingly urgent running time, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” leads us through each step of that fateful brief encounter. It could hardly begin less auspiciously: After a rocky boat journey that leaves her sopping wet on the coast of Brittany, lugging a crate of equally soaked canvases, Marianne is received at the home of a countess (Valeria Golino) who has hired her to paint her daughter Héloïse’s portrait.
The painting will serve a single purpose — to tempt the eye and secure the hand of a wealthy Milanese suitor — and it must be painted under highly unusual conditions. Héloïse, who for mysterious reasons was recently brought home from a convent, has no desire to marry and refuses to sit for a portrait. A male artist’s attempt to capture her likeness has already failed. To avoid a similar outcome, the countess orders Marianne to present herself as a paid companion for Héloïse, to accompany her on daytime walks along the surrounding cliffs and beaches, and paint her afterward in secret.
Immediately, then, Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship is charged with an undercurrent of suspicion that Sciamma will spend the next two hours carefully dismantling. She manages this with a combination of playful wit and intense concentration. Some in the audience may watch Héloïse and be reminded of the ghostly Carlotta Valdes in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”; later, as she and Marianne lower their guards, they can’t help but evoke the leads of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona.”
Others may find themselves reaching for that oft-abused but sometimes unavoidable word, “painterly,” to describe the exquisite stillness and compositional elegance of the images (shot by Claire Mathon, of the equally gorgeous “Atlantics”). From the majesty of the wind-swept coastal vistas to the firelit chiaroscuro of the nighttime interludes, these are pictures that invite not just admiration, but also sustained contemplation.
In “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” looking — and, no less importantly, seeing — becomes a crucial, even radical, act. You could say the chief concern of this quietly incandescent, fiercely intelligent movie is for these two naturally aloof women to see each other clearly, to arrive at a place where their perceptions and desires can be freely acknowledged and reciprocated. Marianne’s task, to use oil and canvas to reproduce Héloïse’s countenance and suggest something of her spirit, thus takes on an almost metaphysical significance. Her job is not just to depict Héloïse, but also to bring her into the light.
But that light will be reflected back onto Marianne in turn, recasting her not as Héloïse’s manipulator but as her collaborator. One of the movie’s more tantalizing suggestions is that Héloïse already knows what’s going on from the start but is sufficiently intrigued by Marianne that she goes along with the deception. Much of this is suggested almost subliminally by the casting: Merlant’s dark, penetrating gaze has the effect of making Marianne seem curiously transparent, while Haenel, until now best known for “The Unknown Girl” and “BPM (Beats Per Minute),” has a remarkable ability to project both vulnerability and omniscience. Héloïse’s reluctance to smile is hardly her only Sphinx-like quality.
In any event, once the facts (if not the feelings) of the situation are out in the open, Héloïse agrees to sit for Marianne until the painting is completed. The countess departs for several days, leaving her daughter and Marianne alone with a servant girl, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who becomes a platonic companion. What emerges is a kind of temporary utopia, a refuge where these three women can read, talk, play cards and enjoy one another’s company far from the prying eyes and domineering designs of men. It is also a place where an impossible love can take unhindered root, as Héloïse and Marianne’s rhetorical thrusts and parries naturally give way to murmured endearments and ardent embraces.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” in other words, is an act of reclamation: a lesbian romance in which tenderness and eroticism take the place of objectification, and a period piece that encourages the audience to reflect on the innumerable female artists who have been historically overshadowed by their male contemporaries (plus ça change).
What makes it a great movie, rather than a list of ideologically correct imperatives, is the specificity and delicacy with which Sciamma has shaped the material — the way each new idea seems to emerge from the love story like a whisper. She’s interested in her characters’ thoughts but not in reducing them to mouthpieces; she’s alive to the beauty of their faces and bodies but also the singularity of their hearts and minds. She sees everyone in this picture whole.
Although this is Sciamma’s first movie set in the distant past, it feels thematically of a piece with her earlier “Water Lilies” (which also featured Haenel), “Tomboy” and “Girlhood” — all stories about young women exploring their own nonconformist notions of gender and sexuality. In an interview at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where she received the jury prize for best screenplay, Sciamma described “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” as “a love story with equality.” There are many ways to think about equality, and you are likely to come away from this movie feeling that the filmmaker has given each of them her full consideration.
Equality obliterates the class barriers separating Héloïse and Marianne from Sophie, whose own personal travails — she’s just found out that she’s pregnant — become the focus of a particularly pointed subplot. Equality unites Marianne and Héloïse as two lovers of the same gender, and also as a painter and a subject who become fellow conspirators rather than falling into a reductive artist-muse dynamic. (There are inspirations aplenty here but no muses.) Equality informs Sciamma and Mathon’s visual choices, from the deliberate framing of the two leads in symmetrical two-shots to the adroit balance of discretion and candor in the love scenes.
But perhaps the subtlest form of equality here is the parallel that Sciamma implicitly draws between thinking and feeling. This is demonstrated beautifully, and with just the right touch of didacticism, by the characters’ recurring discussions of Eurydice and Orpheus, the ultimate romantic tragedy about the destructive, transformative power of a single gaze. How that myth plays out for Héloïse and Marianne, from the beginning of this movie to its wrenching succession of codas, becomes another radical inversion of received wisdom — which is to say, a fresh way of seeing. It’s the rare movie that can take something as ancient as myth and use it to break your heart anew.
Rating: R, for some nudity and sexuality
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Playing: Opens for a one week run Dec. 6 at Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood