Have you heard of the movie "Portrait of a Lady on Fire?" I hadn't either until one of my daughters recommended it. This French movie with English subtitles is stunning visually, thought-provoking in its examination of themes, fascinating in its setting and time period, and unforgettable in emotions explored.
The most striking thing about Céline Sciamma’s fourth feature—in French with English subtitles—is its sumptuousness. Close your eyes, listen to the spare dialogue and you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Open them and you’re confronted by colors of a purity and subtlety that not only befit a story of art and portraiture (among other things) but carry much of the drama’s emotional content. Cinematographers used to be called lighting cameramen. This production’s lighting camerawoman, Claire Mathon, conjures with light as if it were palpable, and as spreadable as pigment on canvas. Many scenes evoke the creaminess of Vermeer, although the action is set not in 17th-century Holland but on an island off the Brittany coast at the end of the 18th century.
Before taking us there, Ms. Sciamma introduces us to her heroine, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a portrait painter and teacher who is doing double duty in her art class by serving as a model for her students, all of them young women. (Men figure only as incidental, unnamed characters.) “Take time to look at me,” she tells them.
This could be the film’s motto. It’s about looking long and carefully enough at a subject to see, then seeing deeply enough to feel. That’s what Marianne does on the island. She has been commissioned to paint a wedding portrait. The bride-to-be, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), is as lovely a subject as a portraitist could ask for, but melancholy and withdrawn, with good reason. Caught up in an arranged marriage, Héloïse has been promised to a man she has never met. She doesn’t want to pose for the portrait, which will symbolize her loss of freedom, so Marianne, representing herself as a walking companion, must observe Héloïse surreptitiously and paint her from memory, using her brush as a kind of candid camera.
The writer-director, Ms. Sciamma, uses her film to cast a slow-release spell; it’s a daring approach that doesn’t seem like a strategy, let alone a choice. At first the pace is lulling. Our involvement depends on our willingness to watch and wait, and we’re ever more willing. We watch the artist watching her subject closely. We wait to see if Marianne, who has set up a small, secret studio in her living quarters, gets caught at what amounts to a betrayal of trust. (My only quarrel with the film is why Héloïse can’t smell Marianne’s solvents or paints.) That’s the first source of tension in the plot, but the prime mover is sexual tension, which grows inexorably as the women learn the contours of each other’s lives. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”—the fire is figurative, but also real—goes beyond painterly beauty. It sees into souls.Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal