Review: 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' simmers with passion

French romance takes on big themes with grace and power

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

In "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," romance itself is a work of art. 

Writer-director Céline Sciamma ("Girlhood") has created a work of passion, intimacy and obsession, of first loves, forbidden loves and timeless matters of the heart. It belongs on the wall of a museum.   

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in "Portrait of a Lady on Fire."

It's 1770, and Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives on a small island in Brittany. She's there to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who is due to be married off to a man in Milan. 

Ah, but it's not that easy. Héloïse is a reluctant subject, and an earlier artist couldn't finish the job. The portrait is symbolic of her arranged marriage, which she sees as a prison sentence for her soul, so she refuses to pose.

Marianne is to act as Héloïse's friend — she is to accompany her on walks — and paint her, in secret, from memory. 

Marianne joins Héloïse on strolls to the seashore. Héloïse sees freedom in the seaside cliffs and breaking waves. She's lived a sheltered existence and Marianne empathizes with her. She teaches her about music, which Héloïse has never experienced. 

Meanwhile, the time they spend together grows their relationship into something more. When Marianne reveals the true purpose of her visit, Héloïse is at first taken aback, but agrees to pose for her. Their trust grows, their inhibitions drop, and they explore the simmering passion that is building between them. 

"Portrait of a Lady on Fire" shares a lot in common with "Call Me By Your Name," down to a riveting final shot that helps contextualize and emotionally frame everything that came before it. Much credit goes to actresses Merlant and Haenel, who breathe lovely life into their characters; in an early scene, Haenel's eyes dance with the giddy excitement of blossoming love. 

Cinematographer Claire Mathon shoots the film like a painting; a scene were Marianne, Héloïse and maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) trudge off to a womens' gathering atop a hill is shot in breathtaking silhouette.

It's an all-in effort, and Sciamma has created something of a masterwork. It's a deeply layered story — a brush-up on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice wouldn't hurt — with themes that transcend era and setting. This girl is on fire.


'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'


Rated R: for some nudity and sexuality

Running time: 122 minutes