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

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