Portrait of a Lady on Fire, writer/director Céline Sciamma’s sumptuous tale of forbidden love on an island in Brittany, finally hits US theaters this week after playing basically every film festival you’ve ever heard of last year and appearing on countless critics’ associations’ year-end best-of lists. It’s certainly a film that rewards a patient viewer (and really, all most of us impatient viewers ask is to be rewarded).
Imagine the female equivalent of Call Me By Your Name and you wouldn’t be far off. Rather than a 17th century Villa in 1980s Lombardy, Sciamma transports us to the late 1700s, where men in tricorner hats ply a row boat up to a secluded island in Brittany. With shades of The Piano, Marianne (played by Noémie Merlant, who looks like a Gallic Emma Watson with a gummy smile) hops into the sea tethered to her art supplies (which, being wood, float, unlike the big wooden piano in The Piano, which I could never get past) lugging them to the beach and up to the clearly-not-wheelchair-accessible estate.
Inside the manor, which doesn’t seem to have any furniture (comment on the state of the family’s finances) Marianne meets the Comtesse, played by Valeria Golino, who once upon a time played Ramada in Hot Shots Part Deux. The Comtesse has hired Marianne to paint a wedding portrait of the Comtesse’s daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who has returned from the convent so she can be married off to a Milanese. There’s only one problem: Héloïse doesn’t want to be married off to a Milanese she’s never met and thus won’t sit for a portrait. So Marianne must try to memorize her features while they walk along the rugged coastline and paint Héloïse from memory. Much meaningful staring ensues.
Marianne luxuriates in her charge’s features, from the elegant jut of her cheekbones to the luminous undulations of her neck meat, and we along with her. Obviously, attempting to know your crush’s features by heart in order to paint her from memory is a much subtler form of seduction than, say, fucking a peach with a hole in it while thinking of Armie Hammer. “I see you, Jake Sully” as the Na’vi say in Avatar. Yet in Sciamma’s hands, it’s equally sensual. And fitting for the kind of self-abnegating doomed love that Marianne and Héloïse eventually share.
Amor fou this ain’t. It’s more like the love equivalent of day by day, little by little convincing a chipmunk to eventually eat of our your hand — the love shared by the easily spooked. It’s also immensely gratifying when it finally happens, a doomed, self-abnegating kind of viewing experience. I can’t remember the last time a movie was this patient in revealing its charms; reeling you in so slowly and with such a gentle hook that one minute you’re swimming around and the next you find yourself flopping around in the bottom of the boat.
I wouldn’t presume to understand every nuance of the queer gaze, but I doubt you’d find a clearer example of what a movie about a lesbian love affair looks like when directed by a man vs. one directed by a lesbian woman than in comparing Portrait Of A Lady On Fire to Blue Is The Warmest Color. The smoldering glances are as often as not over one shoulder or into a mirror as head-on, face to face.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire doesn’t shout at you. It whispers gently from the porch of another house, leaving its message to be carried on the breeze.