Noèmie Merlant (left) and Adèle Haenel play women who become lovers in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” (Neon/Lilies Films)

Noèmie Merlant (left) and Adèle Haenel play women who become lovers in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” (Neon/Lilies Films)

Slow-burning passions ignite in dazzling ‘Portrait of a Lady’

This French film begins as a 18th-century period piece, then becomes something else entirely.

Halfway through “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” there’s a scene that seems to open the movie up into a whole new realm. It might be a religious ceremony, or a gathering of witches, but it definitely involves a woman catching on fire.

Up until then, this movie — one of my Ten Best of 2019 — has been a well-dressed period piece. Granted, there’s a considerable amount of sexual tension between the two main characters, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a wealthy young woman whose family has an estate on an island off the coast of Brittany, and Marianne (Noèmie Merlant), an artist sent there to paint Héloïse’s picture.

But much of the film is about handsome dresses and romantic vistas and proper behavior, which one might expect from a tale set around 1770. Then, suddenly, we’re standing around a bonfire with a bunch of woman hypnotically chanting, as Heloise and Marianne share a torrid eye-lock and a lady goes aflame.

No, the movie doesn’t turn into “Midsommar,” or some other kind of nightmare folk horror. But passions do burst, and the painting commission turns into a romance concentrated in the few days the women have together on the seaside estate.

Like the heroine of a Jane Austen novel, Heloise is expected to marry money. The portrait, in fact, is meant to impress a potential husband in Milan — which makes the process rather complicated for the lovestruck painter.

We meet Héloïse’s practical mother, a countess (Valeria Golino), and also a servant (Luàna Bajrami), whose function in the film grows in importance. There are almost no men around, but we’re constantly reminded that these women have few choices about their lot in life.

“Portrait” is written and directed by Cèline Sciamma, who did the thoughtful 2014 film “Girlhood.” It’s a movie about art, and the desire expressed in the act of seeing (and being seen). So it’s fitting that Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon, who won the National Society of Film Critics Best Cinematography prize for this film and “Atlantics,” create a beautiful canvas.

But the film doesn’t have the gauzy look of many a romance novel adaptation. “Portrait” is brightly colored but also cool and crisp; you can feel the brisk sea air in its scenes of women striding along the coast.

The chemistry between the lead actresses adds to the movie’s effect; Haenel and Merlant were recently nominated for Cesars, the French Oscars (the movie got 10 nominations in all). Their steady-burning approach works wonderfully well for the overall style: This dazzling movie ignites only when it needs to.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (4 stars)

In the late 18th century, an artist (Noèmie Merlant) travels to an island off the Brittany coast to paint the portrait of a wealthy young woman (Adèle Haenel). Cèline Sciamma’s dazzling film allows a slow-burning attraction between the two women to explode at the right times. In French, with English subtitles.

Rating: R, for nudity

Opening Friday: Egyptian theater

Talk to us

More in Life

Photos by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times 

The Jacob and Sarah Ebey House will open to public visitors Memorial Day weekend.
A landmark steeped in 19th century history reopens on Whidbey

Beginning May 28, you can venture inside one of the state’s oldest buildings: The Jacob and Sarah Ebey House, which dates from the 1850s.

Caption: Incorporating frozen vegetables into your menu plan is a fast and cost-effective way to save money on rising food costs.
The secrets of cheap meals: frozen veggies and slow cookers

They not only stretch your food budget, but also timesaving godsends for busy parents. Here are three recipes to try.

What is diverticulitis and what can I do about it?

People older than 40 should have a screening colonoscopy to determine whether they have this intestinal condition, which can lead to serious medical problems.

Cinderella_Red.jpg: Red Riding Hood (Katelynn Carlson) gets advice from Cinderella (Grace Helmcke) in Red Curtain’s production of Into the Woods, running May 20-June 5 at the Red Curtain Arts Center, 9315 State Ave. in Marysville.
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Marysville troupe stages a Stephen Sondheim musical masterpiece. Jazz, featuring the sons of legend Dave Brubeck, takes over Edmonds. And there’s this music festival in downtown Everett …

Navigating the rough, often scary seas of a hospital stay

After helping a friend who underwent major surgery, Paul Schoenfeld reflects on ways to cope for patients and their loved ones.

Sam Bowles records the run off the water from a chalk drawing with friend and co-artist, Rhyanna Mercer, Tuesday afternoon in Everett, Washington on May 10, 2022.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Jackson High’s global TikTok star is chalk full of ideas

Sam Bowles, 18, uses vibrant videos and social media fame to raise awareness of autism.

I canceled my flight to Frankfurt, but now I can’t use my credit

Melissa Crespo receives a $2,060 ticket credit when she cancels her flights to Frankfurt, Germany. But now her online agency has told her she can only use 25% of the credit at a time. Can it do that?

Lonicera ciliosa, commonly called orange honeysuckle or western trumpet vine. (Richie Steffen)
Great Plant Pick: orange honeysuckle

Its orange trumpets announce spring is here, and hummingbirds are irresistibly drawn to it.

Home & garden happenings in Snohomish County

The Mill Creek Garden Tour will return this summer after a two-year absence due to COVID-19.

Photo Caption: Would you believe a zipper sold for $18,450 at Morphy Auctions? What about a diamond necklace that looks and works like a zipper?
X-Y-Z spells ‘big money’ with this high-fashion zipper

It’s actually a necklace, but the zipper function works. Someone paid nearly $18,500 for it at a recent auction.

The signature retro VW bus is on display at the Lamb & Co. home decor store Saturday afternoon in Snohomish, Washington on January 8, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
This Snohomish store has the goods from HGTV’s ‘Unsellable House’

Take home the design and decor savvy of hometown real estate twins Lyndsay Lamb and Leslie Davis.

The 2022 Infiniti QX60 Sensory has seating for seven. Heated outboard second-row seats and power-return third-row seats are standard equipment. (Manufacturer photo)
Infiniti QX60 Sensory model doesn’t play second fiddle

The new Autograph version tops the 2022 lineup, but this previous headliner holds its own.