Review: 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'

No woman is an island in director CÚline Sciamma's new film
THE HEAT: 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'—'paint me like your French girls.'

The two-woman, huntress-gets-captured-by-the-game romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire offers a lot: particularly ravishing color that makes the actresses look like Fragonards. And the spirit of the French Revolution waiting in the wings gives the story some yeast.

Sometime in the last half of the 1700s, the painter Marianne (Noemie Merlant) arrives at an island off Brittany in a rowboat in a rough sea. She shows her spirit right away—when her box of canvases is knocked overboard she jumps in after them, shoes and all. Marianne learned the trade from her artist father, and is there on this island to paint Heloise (Adele Haenelt), the daughter of a countess.

But the daughter refuses to pose. The finished portrait will be sent to a potential husband in Milan who wants a good look at this convent-raised girl, and Heloise doesn't want to be auctioned off. Heloise also seethes because her elder sister fell or jumped from a seaside cliff, under circumstances that get cloudier the more they're explained.

The seduction between artist and model is slow and tantalizing, since Marianne must covertly sketch the girl without being found out. Heloise is a tough subject even when she holds still. It's a task to get past her look of crossness, the creases of sorrow under her eyes. As the portrait builds, it becomes one of those paintings where the love between painter and model is unignorable.

Subplots add crosscurrents to the romance: Sophie (Luana Bajrami) is a maid who must terminate her pregnancy in the old way, through teas of bitter herbs and a visit to an old woman who specializes in just such things. And the Countess (Valeria Golino) explains herself: she has a good excuse for sending Heloise, her Miranda of a daughter, away. It's so she can see the brave new world outside, and go to a real city, and hear a real orchestra.

On the whole, director C—line Sciamma masters the waxing and waning of moods. There's a rowdy game of slapjack; later Heloise poses with a mirror over her naked loins so that Marianne can see herself reflected, the better to draw a self-portrait.

One takes away Heloise's tousled hair and rich, satiated half-smile, and tends to overlook Sciamma's trouble settling on an ending. There is creeping anachronism here: in the style of the paintings themselves, in an irresolute bit about magic mushrooms. A villagers' dissonant vocal chorale at a campfire brings up unwelcome memories, first of Midsommar, and then of an Enya LP. The especially picky could muse on the way marriage was looked at among the gentry of the era. There should be no reason why Heloise couldn't have a female companion, since her husband would most certainly be out with a companion of his own.

Portrait of a Lady in Flames
R; 122 Mins.
CineArts Santana Row

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