Of all the selections at the 57th annual New York Film Festival, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is one of my favorites. It is also among the best films I have seen this year. Writer-director Céline Sciamma has created a work of great beauty and sensitivity, with captivating central performances by actresses who are a pleasure to see as they enhance the film’s emotional depth.
There is a late 18th century period setting on an island off Brittany, when artist Marianna, played with sophistication by Noémie Merlant, is hired by an Italian countess, portrayed imperiously by Valeria Golino, to be a companion to her daughter and to secretly paint a wedding portrait of her. The daughter, Héloise, the exquisite Aèdle Haenel, after having been in a convent, is mourning the mysterious death of her sister. She does not want to get married and resents being slated to marry the man from Italy who was to wed her sister. Héloise’s mother knows she would resist the idea of sitting for a portrait.
The artist and subject arrangement is unusual. The painter is to observe Héloise during their time together but paint her in private. The essence of the film involves the slow process by which the two women get to know one another, with all the nuances of a developing friendship that becomes much more and their secret.
Their growing bond, with the painting process proceeding all along, is compelling to behold, and these two actresses become mesmerizing in their attraction for one another during their deepening private relationship. Throughout the cinematography by Claire Mathon and the production design by Thomas Grézaud are extraordinary, with all the beauty of a classic period story.
Of course, Héloise and Marianna enter into a lesbian relationship, which is filmed with loving care in its intimacy, and an audience can delight in the way in which these two women unite and express themselves to each other, all in the context of what life would have been like for many women living in that era.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is filled with all sorts of meticulous detail, and Sciamma has to be congratulated for how she has put so much together in grand style, told a compelling story and also artistically used the fiery symbolism suggested by the title for emphasis. The film emerges as a work of rare accomplishment and is certainly worth repeated viewing. A Neon release. Reviewed November 7, 2019.