On a remote island in eighteenth-century France, a woman is about to be married off to a rich Milanese stranger. Her portrait must be painted to ensure she meets his requirements; he had agreed to wed her elder sister, but the sister has died, perhaps in an effort to avoid her fate, so now it falls to Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). She’s thus far staged a quiet rebellion by refusing to pose, exhausting one artist who tried to capture her, so now her mother (Valeria Golino) has resorted to hiring a woman, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), as a faux chaperone who will take her on walks each day and then paint her from memory, by stealth.
You can already tell that the two young women will fall in love. For the first 20 minutes of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu), no one sees Héloïse’s face, but when she turns at last, stopping to wait for Marianne at the cliff’s edge after a spell of running as hard as she can, she’s fleshy and ravishing and elated. Shot after shot evokes some French or Dutch Old Master, using rich, luminous colors and deft choreography. This setup seems to have all the ingredients of a lush period romance, and Céline Sciamma’s film feels so luxuriant and assured that you don’t notice right away how many of the expected elements are missing.
Music, for one. Moments of tension, longing, anxiety, or exuberance—all the rhythms and cadences of the story—are conveyed without a score of strings. The two pieces of music you do hear, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and an eerie electronic original work that layers chants and claps, both exist within the reality of the story. The audience is given over into the same state as the characters, in which music, rather than being an almost unnoticeable pressing of emotional buttons every few minutes, is rare, significant, and transporting—and accompanied by an intimate awareness of the bodies that are performing it.
That’s apt because the film is about art as much as love, and is enthralled by the slow, sustained efforts that both require in order to yield a feeling of transcendence. When Marianne is painting, there’s none of the usual illusion of seeing the completed work slide into view: Each sequence shows a particular period in the creation of a picture, whether the early brushstrokes or the last, counterintuitive touches of color. The emphasis is on the gradualness and physicality of the process, the difficulty of translating mood and expression into paint.