“When do we know it’s finished?”
“At one point we stop.”
Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter, recalls her short time on a Brittany island in the new film from French film director, Céline Sciamma (Girlhood). Set in 1770, the young Marianne arrives at a remote manor house by boat, almost losing her canvases in the swell as she presents herself for her latest commission. She has been hired to paint Heloise (Adèle Haenel), a woman of a similar age who has been recalled from a convent in order to marry a Milanese man following the mysterious death of her sister (the man’s original intended bride), who may have thrown herself from nearby cliffs.
The painting is to satisfy Heloise’s husband to be, and having already refused to be painted by a male artist on account of not wanting to be married, Heloise’s mother instructs Marianne to assume the role of her reluctant daughter’s companion and complete a portrait in secret. Sciamma summons gothic currents, invoking Hitchcock’s Rebecca and even Vertigo, in a depiction of surveillance morphing into romantic obsession as Marianne stalks Heloise, who in turn begins to look back. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is further evidence that cinema is the ideal vehicle for stories of desire and its relationship to looking and watching.
Both actresses are superb, conveying as much with their eyes as dialogue, as the cat-and-mouse tensions between their characters unravel into a love affair. There is much of interest in the ways in which the two women diverge from the norms of their time (Marianne has had to operate in secret for much of her training and career), but Sciamma is just as concerned with the thorny intersection of art and intimacy. Marianne struggles to capture Heloise’s essence initially, only breaking through and producing good, truthful work when the pair meet as equals and lovers.