"Portrait of a Lady on Fire,"
directed by Céline Sciamma (R, 2 hours, 2 minutes)
Céline Sciamma's meditative film marries the conventions of Gothic romance -- a drafty mansion on a wind-swept coast -- to feminist theory, and lets the film's light and noise do their work. This is a painterly film, a clear-eyed tale of love thwarted by the expectations of late 18th-century society.
It begins in the studio of painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) who is simultaneously posing for and instructing a class of female art students, one of whom has pulled from storage an old painting of Marianne's -- Portrait de la jeune fille en feu. That takes the audience back years, to the coast of Brittany where Marianne is being ferried from the shore to a nearby island. When a crate carrying her canvases tips overboard, she immediately jumps into the ocean to retrieve them.
Upon arriving after dark at the home of the subject she has been commissioned to immortalize, she's soaked. Sophie (Luàna Barjrami) welcomes her, and soon she's warming herself before a hearth, the two canvases she has brought along drying out as well.
Sophie tells Marianne she hasn't known her young mistress Heloise (Adèle Haenel) long; she has only just arrived from the convent. Heloise is to be married soon to a noble Milanese fop originally betrothed to her sister, who went over the cliffs. The portrait Marianne is to paint will introduce Heloise to the suitor who has never met her. If he approves, the wedding will go forth, whether Heloise approves or not.
As Heloise is resistant to sitting for the portrait, her mother explains that the plan is to paint her surreptitiously, that Marianne has been hired as her companion. Marianne agrees and is soon pulled close by her gravity.
Every detail seems to be chosen and arrayed to specify particular attributes of the two main characters. Heloise may be trapped in her trajectory, as Marianne is in hers, but despite the director's stylized presentation of their bodies and dialogues, neither of them function as a symbol.
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