I approach every film that delights me at film festivals with a sense of trepidation. While absorbing an overwhelming array of excellent films (and working on a sleep deficit), it’s easy to be seduced by movies that are merely pretty good. Plenty of films that are glowingly praised at festivals won’t have much impact once they’re actually released, and though there are plenty of explanations for that, an overactive hype machine is a prime candidate. Luckily, that doesn’t seem to be the case with Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, her passionate and invigorating fourth feature.
Set some time in the late 18th Century, the Portrait concerns two young women struggling against the stifling societal expectations that govern them. Noémie Merlant stars as Marianne, a painter best known as the daughter of a respected painter. She has been called to Brittany on the western edge of France to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which her family desires in order to send it to a Milanese suitor they hope to marry her off to. If he finds her beautiful enough, then the survival of their bloodline is guaranteed. But Héloïse has no intention of sitting for a portrait, and has already scared away one male painter. In order to get past her defenses, Marianne pretends to be a visiting companion — someone who would spend time with Héloïse to keep her occupied in the otherwise barren landscape.
Marianne steals furtive glances when the other isn’t looking, and makes small sketches of her hands, the arch of her neck, and her ears, combining them into a portrait at night by candlelight. But as she gets to know her subject better, she begins to have doubts about the morality of her covert art, and comes to better understand Héloïse’s situation. Both women are confined by their gender and status in society; Marianne is of a lower class and has her father’s successful work to buffer her from a need to marry, but she is limited in the subjects she’s allowed to paint because she’s a woman. Héloïse leads a life of relative luxury, but is isolated from the culture and art she desires, and now she’ll have to enter into a union she has no interest in. Eventually, this mutual understanding develops into something more between the two.
Sciamma manages to develop her characters in Portrait with a minimum of dialogue, instead focusing on light and color and composition to convey meaning. When the two women first meet by the sea, they’re filmed in profile, and we see Marianne take quick sideways glances to her right to glimpse Héloïse’s face in order to paint it later. But each time she turns her head it reveals her own face as well. One time Héloïse is staring directly at the waves, but another time she’s gazing at Marianne as if she’s swallowing her image as intently as the secret painter.
Even when these two do try to voice their inner torments, it’s in more subtle, quiet ways. When Héloïse runs from the mansion to the edge of a cliff, Marianne fears she intends to kill herself, but she stops at the last moment. “I’ve dreamt of that for years,” she says, and when Marianne asks if she means dying, she corrects her: “Running.” She’s been cooped up alone in this house for years, and only desires the freedom to make her own choices, even if it’s as simple as freedom of movement. A lesser filmmaker might have entertained death as a form of “freedom” or “release,” but Sciamma wisely avoids that tired trope.
Working in glorious counterpoint with Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon’s exquisite visuals are Merlant and Haenel. Both are experts at playing characters who can never quite say what they truly mean or feel for each other. Instead, they communicate to each other and us through subtle gestures: the biting of a lip, the wrinkling at the corners of the eye. Their love story doesn’t exist completely in these sideways glances, but the expectation of a connection is almost as potent as the real thing. (Haenel and Sciamma began a relationship shortly after both made their first film together, 2007’s Water Lilies, so it’s not surprising that she has such a keen grasp of the actor’s every expression.) Seemingly at every juncture, Sciamma takes Portrait in unexpected directions. Even when nothing at all is happening on screen, it’s incredibly thrilling. Some might dub Portrait of a Lady on Fire as slow cinema, but only if they’re not paying attention.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15