“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” comes to the M.V. Film Center on Wednesday, Feb. 12, in time for Valentine’s Day. It is a passionate and evocative romance between two women in late 18th century Brittany. Director Céline Sciamma won the screenplay prize and the Queer Palm at Cannes for the film, as well as acclaim from many critics.
Marianne, played by French actress Noémi Merlant, is a painter who has been commissioned to make a wedding portrait of a young (the title in French is, importantly, not “dame” but “jeune fille”) aristocrat named Héloïse, played by Adèle Haenel. Both actresses have earned multiple César nominations, the French equivalent of the Oscar, and their performances in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” should bring them more accolades.
The film begins with Marianne teaching painting to a class of women, who look at her work “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” made, she says, a long time ago. The next scene begins the flashback that continues for the rest of the film. Marianne is seated in a boat that men are rowing to a remote island in Brittany, home of an aristocratic family. When a wooden crate falls overboard, Marianne dives into the water to retrieve it. It contains canvases she will use to paint Héloïse, who has recently arrived from a Benedictine convent, and has no desire to marry. Héloïse’s sister, who was to wed the same Milanese noble, fell to her death from the cliffs overlooking the ocean in a suspected suicide.
Marianne is met by the maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who will become an active participant in her and Héloïse’s lives. Because Héloïse refuses to have her portrait painted, her widowed mother (Valeria Golino) tells Marianne to pretend she is her daughter’s companion. Marianne accompanies Héloïse on beach walks, which gives her the opportunity to study her subject and begin to sketch Héloïse in secret.
The family chateau is a world inhabited exclusively by women, and the film intimately explores that world and the freedom the women in it feel. The gaze Marianne employs to render Héloïse on canvas becomes an important cinematic device, articulating not only Marianne’s role as a painter but the way individuals examine each other in general. The gaze is also a metaphor for the nature of film itself.
As Marianne and Héloïse get to know each other, Héloïse’s gaze becomes as powerful as Marianne’s. The relationship of the two progresses, and they fall in love, pursuing a passionate but doomed affair while Héloïse’s mother is away. They help Sophie abort a pregnancy, and attend the women’s bonfire event where Héloïse’s skirt catches fire. This intimate and independent world is destined to end, but as in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice the women read and discuss, its memory lives on.
Shots of the rocky Brittany coast enrich the visuals, as do the closeups of the two women as they gaze at one another. The story is reminiscent of another recent film about young, gay love, “Call Me by Your Name.” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” conveys the power of memory not only for its characters but also for the viewer.
Information and tickets for “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and other films playing at the Film Center and the Edgartown Cinemas, are available at mvfilmsociety.com and EntertainmentCinemas.com/locations/Edgartown.