Halfway through Céline Sciamma’s razor-sharp and shatteringly romantic “Portrait of a Lady Fire” — as perfect a film as any to have premiered this year — the three main characters sit around a candlelit dinner table and argue the meaning of what happened between Orpheus and Eurydice. More specifically, the point of contention hinges on what motivated Orpheus to ignore the instructions he was given and turn around to look at his love, even though he knew it would cause her to vanish from the world forever.
Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), a naïve young house servant, opts for the most literal interpretation of the ancient tale: She insists that Orpheus was an idiot. But Héloïse (a brilliant Adèle Haenel), the older, booksmart, but similarly inexperienced daughter of the absent widow who owns the place, awakens to a different understanding. To her mind, Orpheus was completely in control of his wits, he just decided to choose the memory of Eurydice over the real thing. And why not? Eurydice has already died once, and there’s no telling how long her second life might last. But in Orpheus’ heart, she will always be young and perfect. Perhaps it’s better to keep her there.
As with each of Sciamma’s three previous features, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a profoundly tender story about the process of self-discovery and becoming. But while all of her work has been immaculate in one way or the other, and her 2007 debut — about the sexual awakening of a girl on a synchronized swimming team — was even dubbed “Water Lilies” for its English release, this is the first of her films that could be described as “painterly.” And while all of her work has been about the images that her characters project, this one is more concerned with the ones they leave behind. Austere where “Tomboy” was anxious, and hesitant where “Girlhood” was recklessly confident, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a period romance that’s traditional in some ways, progressive in others, and altogether so damn true that it might feel more like staring into a mirror than it does running your eyes over a canvas.
The story, which isn’t based on any particular people but is nevertheless inspired by all the centuries of female artists who were overwritten and/or erased by their male contemporaries, is set on the rocky shores of Brittany circa 1770. Marianne (a careful, tender, and violently present Noémie Merlant) is teaching a painting class while tearing up at the sight of — you guessed it — a portrait of a lady on fire. The rest of the tale is comprised of heartbreaking backstory, as Sciamma twists this potentially clumsy framing device into a necessary bit of context: The romance that’s about to unfold will end with a painting in lieu of a partnership.
And, as if to confirm the inestimable value of paintings in this film, the main plot begins with a slightly younger Marianne throwing herself into the ocean in order to save her canvases; the ensuing shot of Merlant sitting naked by a fire in between her two white slabs of wet linen is an indelible harbinger of a film in which every frame could be mounted on a gallery wall. Marianne has come to the creaky home of a wealthy comtesse (“Daughter of Mine” star Valeria Golino) who’s comissioned the artist to paint a wedding portrait for her daughter Héloïse — or of her daughter Héloïse, and for the unseen Italian man who might be persuaded to take her as his bride.
That task will prove easier said than done, as Héloïse is fresh out of a long stint in a strict convent, and in no mood to be married to some guy she’s never met. Her older sister may have felt the same way; she jumped off a cliff some time ago, bequeathing her fate down the line. Marianne will have to pose as a hired companion and paint Héloïse in secret — from memory — so that the subject can be sold off without her knowledge.
The two women forge their bond under false pretenses; Marianne a shrewd but strangely vulnerable brunette, and Héloïse a bratty but clever blonde. Their hair cuts a marvelous contrast into the blue skies and clay sounds that surround the chateau. Costume designer Dorothée Guiraud assigns them both a uniform that they wear throughout the film (Marianne in red and Héloïse in emerald), which makes it that much easier to appreciate how their complexions flush out as their friendship blooms and their dresses buckle. Sometimes Marianne wears a beige smock that makes her look like a Jedi in training, as Merlant’s concentration is complicated by layers of talent and desire that she tries to hide by clenching her jaw.
In some ways, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” might seem a bit stodgy and old-fashioned, not least of all from a filmmaker whose previous work continues to burn hot with the urgency of our modern age. Both Marianne and Héloïse are products of their time — even if they both have their eyes cast on a future that takes women seriously — and Sciamma doesn’t ask them to subvert history for the sake of their contemporary audience. The film is paced at the speed of a world that’s lit by candlelight, the sex is sensual without being provocative (although Haenel does something with her armpit hair that might inspire the entire patriarchy to get together and re-evaluate their ideas about grooming), and the third act will frustrate anyone hoping for a more radical takedown of heternormative structures.
At the same time, Sciamma crystallizes why queer romance stories often tap into deep-seated universal emotions that straight ones seldom bother to explore. When Marianne and Héloïse finally get intimate after several increasingly tense days of sitting on either side of a canvas and staring at each other, their terrifying leap of faith is galvanized by the sheer thrill of discovery. “Do all lovers feel as though they’re inventing something?,” Héloïse asks the first partner she’s ever had. Sciamma doesn’t have to answer that question for us, even if that feeling is ultimately more valid for some than it is for others; her film expresses that discovery as vividly as any that’s ever been made, as the drama’s spartan backdrop only adds to the intensity of its blaze.
All lovers also feel as though they’ve lost something, and that’s where “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” mines its true power. This is as much a story of absence as it is a story of togetherness, and as much a story of personal liberty as it is a story of matrimonial bondage. That Marianna and Héloïse don’t end up together isn’t a plot twist so much as the entire point, which is why it’s telegraphed from the opening frames. Sciamma’s deliriously moving film is laser-focused on the space between having something and keeping something, and she visualizes that space by creating a sliver of distance between her characters and their shadows. Just as Héloïse’s mom was shocked to find her own wedding portrait already hanging on a wall of the house when she first moved in, there exists a visceral disconnect between flesh and memory — who people are, and how they’re remembered.
Here, that disconnect can be so vast and filled with elemental power (the scene that lends the film its title burns with enough unspoken desire to char a hole through the screen) that it can belittle the more constructed schisms that tend to keep people apart; Sciamma plays with class politics and social mores until the bitter end, but such things are totally irrelevant to the memory that Marianne and Héloïse have of each other. This is a movie about how people set each other free, not how they don’t (a point which an infuriatingly topical subplot hammers home).
From the arresting first shots to its all-timer of a final shot and a second act choral performance that might even top the Rihanna singalong in “Girlhood,” “Portrait of a Girl on Fire” is an unforgettable film that cooks at a low simmer until going incandescent in its closing minutes. It’s a magnificent love story about how our formative romances can shape us and sweep us forward, whether we have to move along because life presents us an opportunity or if we have to move on because life denies us a million more. It’s a film that captures the feeling you get from the last scene of “Roman Holiday” and stretches it over a full two hours in which not a single moment is wasted.
Most of all, it’s a film that sympathizes with Héloïse’s ostensibly selfish logic. In Orpheus’ heart, she will always be young and perfect. Nothing lasts forever — no one is as beautiful as the impression they leave behind. And love, like a painting, is never really finished. But only when the work is stopped can someone trust that it will be theirs to keep.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” premiered in Competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.