It has been nine long months since its splashy debut at the Cannes Film Festival last May but “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is worth the wait. It’s a masterpiece.
The French romance begins in “Jane Eyre” mode: Marianne (Noémie Merlant), on a boat in rough waters, abruptly leaps into the sea with a mysterious package. She washes up on an island and we discover the package contains canvases. Soggy ones. She has arrived at an isolated manor to paint someone named Heloise.
Writer/director Céline Sciamma teases us by hiding Heloise, the eventual subject of the titular portrait, for the film’s first 19 minutes: We’re shown a previous painting of her, the camera starting at her feet and rising, but it turns out the face is obliterated. We see her walking through the halls of her mansion, again starting at her feet (and again wearing the green dress from the portrait) but, when we reach her face, we realize it’s a maid, carrying the dress. Finally, the camera captures Heloise but it’s from the back and, of course, we still don’t see her face.
There’s a gothic quality to the setting and situation of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which leads us to expect something strange when we finally do see Heloise. Is she a ghost? Is she disfigured? Is she the devil herself?
No, no and no. As played by Adèle Haenel (“BPM”), she’s simply a beautiful young woman who doesn’t want to have her portrait painted because she knows it will be given to a rich old dude who will use it to determine if he wants to marry her. Set in the late 18th century, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” isn’t revolutionary in its themes. Like many a novel from the era, it’s about the limited options afforded smart young women, as exemplified by Heloise asking Marianne if she hasn’t painted naked men because she’s embarrassed by them, and Marianne replying, “It’s mostly to keep [women] from doing great art.”
What feels so fresh about the movie is how Sciamma chooses to show us two people slowly falling in love. An early scene, part of which is in the trailer, depicts the two on a cliff, in close up. Both are in profile, with Marianne in front, her face sometimes obscuring Heloise’s and sometimes revealing Heloise, looking at her as if trying to figure her out. Later, when Heloise agrees to sit for a portrait because she is curious about Marianne, they begin revealing what they’ve secretly learned about each other (“When you lose control, you raise your eyebrows”) and we realize they’re low-key telling each other it’s time to take it to the next level.
There’s a literary quality to “Portrait,” not just because of the Bronte-esque story but also because you’d be wise to pay close attention to the scene in which the women trade theories about why Orpheus turns to look back at Eurydice in the mythic tale, losing her forever. But what’s thrilling about “Portrait” is Sciamma’s command of the way movies tell stories: Crafting a gut punch of a final scene. Punctuating her spare, lyrically shot tale with an orgiastic musical performance. Dropping visual clues (a secret number) and musical clues (Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”) that provide the solution to a mystery that we didn’t even know we were trying to solve but that, let’s face it, we are always trying to solve: the mystery of the human heart.