Héloïse, in a mesmerizing performance by Adèle Haenel, is a sheltered young woman who refuses to have her portrait painted, a prerequisite to her marrying the wealthy Milanese suitor chosen by her mother (Valeria Golino). Héloïse's mother commissions a new artist, Marianne, an equally hypnotic Noémie Merlant, in the hope Marianne can succeed where male painters could not. Subterfuge is needed. Marianne, under the pretense of a walking companion, paints Héloïse in secret by making mental notes of her features. But Héloïse is also studying Marianne; and their scenes together create an exquisite tension of not only will they or won’t they, but when.
The Portrait of a Lady on Fire is set in the late eighteenth century, in the picturesque French coast of Brittany. It proceeds at a gentle, Chekhovian pace. Director Céline Sciamma creates a feminist chamber piece that examines, in the most intimate detail, what it’s like to be a woman, and specifically a woman in the late eighteenth century. The story of Marianne and Héloïse is a story of lovers, but it soars into the heavens because it is the love story of poets. Grade: A