What do you do when you want to capture a moment forever? Today, we’re lucky that we can whip out a smartphone and snap a photo of nearly anything we want to immortalize (or at least remember until we need to clear out storage on our devices). Our ancestors weren’t as fortunate — in the days prior to photography’s invention and proliferation, art was the only way to visually capture a moment. Only the wealthy could afford to commission artists to render their memories with visual representation, and it took substantial time and attention for every piece. Therefore, the cooperation of a painting’s subject is deeply important to the creative process.
How, then, can you paint someone without their knowledge? This is the question posed by Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” In 18th-century France, an artist (Noémie Merlant) is hired to paint a portrait of a sheltered, stubborn young woman (Adèle Haenel) who refuses to pose for such a piece.
While it sounds very simple, the conflict enriches and evolves as the film progresses, and it ingeniously complicates the relationship between the two women — as artist and muse, as friends, and as lovers.
Buoyed by two astonishing lead performances, the drama of “Portrait” plays out on the faces of its two main young women. The subtleties and nuances of their facial expressions communicate worlds of wonder and longing. Haenel struggles to contain her smiles as Merlant steals glances at her visage (research for her painting, of course). It’s immensely clear to any audience that their love is heartbreakingly honest and intensely passionate, despite the highly limited nature of both their dialogue and their physical intimacy.
While the first half of the film unfolds at a slow pace, the cinematography is so beautiful that most viewers ought not to mind. Sciamma and her team make elegant use of their gorgeous seaside location and period setting to create stunning compositions for nearly every frame of the movie.
Yet the dialogue may be even more gorgeous than the visuals — each word feels carefully selected by Sciamma, who also wrote the film, to maximize poignancy and emotional resonance. There’s more memorable one-liners in “Portrait” than nearly any film of the last several years.
A nearly-flawlessly executed work of true art, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” does a great job of building tension and an even better job releasing it. This movie is a dream for art lovers and hopeless romantics, as it often feels more like a painting, a poem, or a symphony than a film. It’s a celebration of art, passion, and love.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is now playing at SBIFF’s Riviera Theatre. Student tickets cost $8 with Westmont ID.