Love at first sight is, for many, a fairy-tale fantasy that grows less and less beautiful the more you think about it. How can you really love someone if you don’t know them? And how can you know them at a single glance? Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which is firmly 2019’s most romantic film, displays a story of love at a constant sight. For two hours, the film’s characters — two women who meet on the edge of society and propriety — never stop studying each other, their eyes sweeping across rooms and windswept cliffs, the increasing intensity of their gaze and simmer of their passion melting away the barriers between them. To fall for someone, Sciamma predicates, is to really see them. And to see them requires time and attention — a process of discovery that only begins with that first look.
What we’re witnessing is a seduction, a mutual and very gradual seduction. And the movie itself does just that to its audience as well, drawing you in with the striking vividness of its imagery and the quiet patience of its storytelling (Claire Mathon’s cinematography is staggering in its vibrancy of color and voyeuristic close-ups). It takes a minute to parse out the details of the plot. Why, we ponder for a brief stretch, has a young painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), arrived by sea to a secluded island in Brittany? It’s 1760, and, as it’s soon revealed, she’s been commissioned by the wealthy matriarch (Valeria Golino) of the family to produce a portrait of her daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The painting will serve a single purpose — to tempt the eye and secure the hand of a wealthy Milanese suitor, an arrangement where the suitor’s first choice was Héloïse’s sister, before she fell (or possibly jumped) to her death — except it must be painted under highly unusual conditions. Héloïse, who for mysterious reasons was recently brought home from a convent, has no desire to marry and refuses to sit for a portrait. An attempt from a male artist to capture her likeness has already failed. To avoid a similar outcome, the countess orders Marianne to present herself as a paid companion for Héloïse, to accompany her on day time walks along the surrounding cliffs and beaches, and paint her afterward in secret.
We first see Héloïse the way that Marianne does: as a figure of mystery and allure and no small amount of sadness, striding across the grassy sprawl of the property, her back to the camera, a sudden gust of wind blowing her hood down to reveal a head of blonde hair. It’s the first detail Marianne commits to memory. As she walks with her, pretending to be there simply as company for her subject, she’s drawing a mental picture of Héloïse, attempting to capture her anatomy and features — the arc of her earlobe, the way she crosses her hands while sitting. But the big element of deception provides an ache of moral dilemma. Marianne isn’t just lying to the person whom she spends her afternoons. In capturing her image without her consent, she’s accelerating Héloïse’s passage into a life she doesn’t want. You could say the chief concern of this quietly passionate, fiercely intelligent movie is for these two naturally aloof women to see each other clearly, to arrive at a place where their perceptions and desires can be freely acknowledged and reciprocated. Marianne’s task, to use oil and canvas to reproduce Héloïse and suggest something of her spirit, thus takes her job to an almost abstract significance. Her job is not just to depict Héloïse, but also to bring her into the light.
But that same light will be reflected back onto Marianne in turn, recasting her not as Héloïse’s manipulator but as her collaborator. One of the movie’s more tantalizing suggestions is that Héloïse already knows what’s going on from the start but is intrigued by Marianne so she goes along with the deception. Much of this is subliminally suggested through the performances: Merlant’s dark, penetrating gaze brings Marianne to seem curiously transparent, while Haenel has a remarkable ability to project both vulnerability and omniscience. But to watch a film about watching, about the power of observation, is to also be a silent third party in the central game of hesitant, mutual courtship. Though not quite a two-hander, Portrait of a Lady on Fire finds its drama in the intensifying, electric chemistry between its leads, unspoken until it finally isn’t. Their first consummation is verbal, not physical: an exchange of intimate observations, the kind of tics of personality that only the infatuated notice. It’s as sexy as any sex scene.
For Sciamma this film is a pretty large creative leap. Taking a jump back in time to an old world and seemingly unlocking the full scope of her passion and insight. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of those period pieces that truly envelops you in the period it recreates; we are invited not just to luxuriate in the low light and routines of another time, but to experience its more deliberate pace, the way the minutes might have passed then and there. At the same time, the film’s soul is defiantly modern. Sciamma recognizes her heroines as kindred spirits of resistance — Héloïse balking at the life her sister escaped only in death, Marianne navigating around the limitations put upon female artists in the 18th century. There’s as well a subplot, touching if maybe not crucial, about the family’s housekeeper (Luàna Bajrami), seeking reprieve from the hand she’s been dealt as a young woman. And Sciamma almost entirely removes men from anywhere on screen — they’re almost completely absent, but also pointedly obscured. (For example, we never see the face of Héloïse’s husband-to-be.)
It might be worth mentioning that Sciamma and her star, Haenel, were once an item. That’s not mere tabloid trivia. Their history together may inform the film’s own gaze, bittersweet in its longing: the way Héloïse looms over the picture like a beacon of beauty and a specter of melancholy, the way Sciamma frames her as a radiant object of desire without objectifying her. Marianne’s canvas may not be so different than from the lens of a filmmaker. From its very first scene, which cuts among the watchful eyes in a room full of art students, Portrait of a Lady on Fire conflates romantic and creative pursuit, arguing for curiosity as the key to both. Notably, Marianne’s first attempt at a painting is a failure, because she can’t yet see Héloïse, in all of her emotional texture. It’s only when the two become collaborators, when one becomes a willing subject, that they’re able to create something meaningful together. Portrait of a Lady on Fire does just that, straight up to its all-timer of an ending and final shot, a supernova of feeling expressed and provoked. For us, watching a watcher, it’s love at last sight. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film shaped through specificities, each glance and gesture equally sublime, as the power of observation blasts not just through one’s eyes, but one’s shattering heart.