“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a sumptuous period piece about passion, feminine independence and painting set in a world of bustles and bodices and ladies wearing Empire waist.
Like the process of portrait painting it depicts, it’s a patient, drawn-out affair, a tale with an ending we see long before the last brush stroke is applied to canvas.
Noémie Merlant is Marianne, a painter we meet as she poses for the young ladies studying under her what to notice, what to sketch next, details they need to pick up on to paint.
Such powers of observation have served Marianne, who learned from her father, well. In a long flashback, we see when those skills of observation served her best — taking on the portrait of a reluctant bride intended for her Italian husband-to-be.
There’s a mystery to this place and this young woman. Marianne arrives by ship’s longboat, having had to rescue her crate of canvases when they fell overboard. Her subject has just come home from a convent. Her subject’s sister just died. And her subject refused to pose for the previous painter who attempted a portrait, which he abandoned — headless — before he disappeared.
“She wore out one painter before you,” the young woman’s mother (Valeria Golino of “Rain Man”) warns (in French and occasionally Italian, with English subtitles). So the daughter cannot know why Marianne is here other than to be a companion. She will have to walk, talk and visit with Heloise (Adèle Haenel) and enlist the help of the only servant (Luàna Bajrami) if she’s to pull this stealth portraiture off.
Heloise is introduced from behind, her head covered on first meeting. Over the course of weeks, Marianne must study her and recite her studies in interior monologues about “the ear, its cartilage” and the like, surreptitiously sketching when her back is turned or sketching from memory back in her room.
When she complains “I haven’t seen her smile,” to Sophie the maid, Sophie’s response changes everything.
“Have you tried to be funny?”
Heloise misses the “equality” of the convent she was yanked out of, is sad that she’s lost her sister but furious that her death means “leaving me her fate” — marrying some Milanese noble she’s never met.
Their interactions grow more sympathetic and unguarded, even as Marianne continues to hide her true purpose. The remoteness of the house, the intimacy of the conversations, the prolonged “study” of each other’s mannerisms, tics and “tells” set the stage for love.
French writer-director Céline Sciamma doesn’t rush any of this, but that doesn’t keep us from leaping ahead in the story. Heloise declaring she likes to “bathe” in the sea, but doesn’t know if she can swim adds a touch of danger, but just that — only a touch.
She’s trying to create a sensual experience, but her shot selection doesn’t emphasize and aid that until the film’s third act. We watch Marianne paint, but the camera doesn’t mimic her eye for Heloise’s eyebrows, neck and eyes.
The painting stays in the foreground, even as the masquerade breaks down. Marianne has trouble getting her countenance just so, and Heloise knows it.
“I didn’t know you were an art critic!”
“And I didn’t know you were a painter!”
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” spreads its “independence” and “equality” messaging over several characters and gives these themes many forms. As you’ve probably heard, the 18th century’s methods for abortion come into play.
But even those scenes lack much in the way of emotion. Drama is here. You just have to concentrate to pick up on it.
The performances are subtle, rarely giving in to simmering. That and the film’s literal reliance on art, as it is made, slows the picture to a crawl.
It’s still a lovely character study in a lovely setting, even if the romance rarely achieves the urgency or heat to truly animate this “portrait.”
MPAA Rating: R for some nudity and sexuality
Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami and Valeria Golino
Credits: Scripted and directed by Céline Sciamma. A Neon release.
Running time: 2:01