The gifted French writer-director Céline Sciamma, whose credits include the superb Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014), has created a masterpiece with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a sumptuous lesbian romance set in France in 1760. A painter, Marianne (Noémi Merlant), arrives on the coast of Brittany, commissioned to create a wedding portrait of an upper class young woman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel, so memorable in The Unknown Girl and the AIDS ensemble drama BPM), who’s fresh out of a convent and unhappily betrothed to an Italian she’s never met. It’s Héloïse’s mother, a French countess (Valeria Golina, also great in this year’s Daughter of Mine), who’s hired Marianne because the previous male painter failed to execute the portrait. Marianne is instructed to be Héloïse’s companion and to paint her only secretly, purely from memory.
What ensues is a textured, complex but engaging tale of friendship, romance, class differences and how women navigated love and lust under a strict patriarchy. Most brilliantly, it’s about the female gaze: Marianne struggles to capture an accurate representation of Héloïse. Finally, she sees her; and Héloïse allows her herself to be seen. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, winner of the best screenplay award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is an unforgettable love story that unspools at a slow burn until the final act, which blazes with an incandescence. The women don’t end up together — no surprise, given the times, and this outcome is made clear by the film’s opening scene. But through artistic images of one another — those they recorded, what they revealed — they keep alive a precious, private memory forever burned into their hearts and minds.