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Review: 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' is a masterpiece about the intimacy of being seen

Lilies Films

Lilies Films

There’s no more astute anthropologist of how the lives of teen girls collide than Céline Sciamma.

Her adolescents circle each other, predatory and rapt, unsure if they want to kiss, befriend, humiliate, or become one other—not because they confuse desire and friendship and rivalry and identification, Sciamma seems to say, but because all those qualities are just elements of a single overwhelming core need to gain something undefinable yet essential from another.

For the first time, in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma suggests that “something” is attainable, if not permanently. Here she extends her themes into young adulthood for what is, compared to her three previous features, a straightforward love story. Or as straightforward as a love story between two young French women in the late 18th century could be in the hands of a director who understands that desire becomes love only when you allow another to perpetually recreate you through her gaze, and you return the favor with your own. So, yeah, not straightforward then. 

Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives on a craggy island that for much of the film appears populated by just three women: a mother, a daughter, and their maid. She’s there to paint the daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), so that a Milanese suitor can judge the goods before he marries her. As for Héloïse, she’d sooner choose to live in a convent, or perhaps hurl herself from a cliff like her sister before her, than submit to this marriage, and in protest she refuses to sit for a portrait. To accomplish her task, Marianne assumes the guise of a walking companion, accompanying Héloïse along the shoreline by day and painting her from recollected furtive glances at night. Soon Héloïse (understandably) interprets the depth and intensity of Marianne’s dark gaze as love, and inevitably her concern about being seen by her possible husband gives way to a more nuanced fear of being mis-seen by someone she wants to adore her.

For all the eloquence of Sciamma’s screenplay, which you could mistake for an adaptation of some classic novel you’ll never forgive your Comp Lit prof for leaving off the syllabus, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a movie about two women looking at (and seeing) each other. For two hours, Merlant and Haenel (who appeared as a teen in Sciamma’s 2007 feature Water Lilies, then too the object of another girl’s desire) reshape each other’s characters with a quiet intensity that demands constant attention.  

Cinematographer Claire Mathon, who doused the Dakar of Mati Diop’s remarkable 2019 class-conscious ghost story Atlantics in an organic neon that had the presence of an additional character, has a gift for shooting day and night as though they’re different worlds. Both the island’s sunlit watercolor pastels and the oil-on-canvas flicker-lit darkness of candles, fireplaces, and bonfires are suffused with romance and danger.

But Sciamma didn’t dip into the past to wring pathos from queer “forbidden love”; she doesn’t underplay the cruelty that limits the lives of these women (there’s an unexpectedly tender if no less wrenching abortion scene), but the historical setting allows her to explore how pleasure is always shaped within constraints. The film closes with a showcase of emotional ambiguity that you could interpret a dozen ways, all of which would feel accurate and all incomplete, and it’s with this final shot that a brilliant movie becomes a masterpiece.