- SLOW BURN In 18th-century France, an artist and her aristocraticsubject fall in love in Sciamma’s ravishing feminist romance.
Two of my favorite 2019 movies were female-directed ones that stayed well outside the Oscar conversation: Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale and Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which opens Friday at Montpelier's Savoy Theater. Known for contemporary coming-of-age tales such as Tomboy and Girlhood, Sciamma performs a strange alchemy here, using her modern, minimalist style to heighten a tragic romance in the classic mold.
Set in 18th-century Brittany, Portrait of a Lady on Fire has the headiness of early romanticism — you can imagine George Sand or Honoré de Balzac concocting the plot — even as it fiercely asserts its relevance to our present moment. Imagine Call Me by Your Name thrust back a few centuries, with two equally riveting performances at its heart.
The plot pivots on the tricky logistics of arranged marriage in the way, way pre-selfie era. A countess (Valeria Golino) hopes to marry her daughter off to a Milanese nobleman. He wants a pic first. So young painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired to produce a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the prospective bride.
Arriving at the remote estate, Marianne soon learns that Héloïse is neither a willing bride nor a willing portrait subject. A previous artist's attempt to capture the young woman on canvas ended up violently defaced. The countess instructs Marianne to act as Héloïse's companion while sketching her on the sly — a tall order for any artist, both technically and ethically. When Héloïse finally agrees to pose, things get even more complicated, because the two women are falling in love.
The film has no speechifying, but a feminist message comes through loud and clear. Raised in a convent, Héloïse is a privileged prisoner, while Marianne enjoys more freedom — largely thanks to her father, a prominent artist — and maidservant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) flies under the radar. A subplot involving Sophie's unwanted pregnancy occasions two of the most quietly revolutionary scenes I've ever seen on screen.
Quiet is key to this film, which has no musical score in the usual sense. Instead of strings swelling to underline passionate moments, we hear the roar of surf or the crackle of a hearth fire. On the rare occasions when music is heard, the diegetic sounds have the impact of long-repressed emotion bursting forth.
Withholding and release are key to Sciamma's visual aesthetic, too. The whole plot hinges on the challenge of painting Héloïse, an act of violence that becomes one of love. Yet the title character doesn't appear for the first 20 minutes, and when she does, we initially see her only from behind.
When Héloïse turns to face us, she needs to be a striking presence, and Haenel does not disappoint. By turns angry, childlike, perceptive and tender, Héloïse dominates the screen, and it's not hard to see how the cagey, professional Marianne falls for her.
Merlant holds her own with a performance of fierce authority. "Look at me," Marianne orders a room of art students in her first scene. The movie makes us look harder, too — beyond whatever the prospective groom hopes to see in Héloïse's portrait. In this world where men have only walk-on roles, women express themselves with their eyebrows, and their smiles are precious and hard-won. Whenever Marianne tries to paint Héloïse with a smile, she fails — "Anger comes to the fore," we're told.
By the end, we've seen some genuine smiles — and tears. Sciamma's film is the very definition of slow burn, but when it catches, it sets the audience on fire, too.