Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Credit: NEON

There’s almost no single moment in Portrait of a Lady on Fire that couldn’t be captured, mounted, and hung on a wall as high art. That’s how visually ravishing it is to experience writer-director Céline Sciamma’s arthouse swoon of movie — winner of both the Queer Palm and Best Screenplay at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

If its rendering sometimes feels more like an exquisite mood piece than a work of fully realized filmmaking, Portrait is still almost impossible to resist as a purely cinematic experience. Or for its suis generis premise: an 18th-century lesbian love story set almost entirely within the windswept parameters of a remote seaside villa, with reams of meditative dialogue and almost no male roles to speak of.

Noémie Merlant is Marianne, an artist sent to capture the likeness of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) for a wedding portrait. The catch is that Héloïse, still recovering from the recent suicide of her sister and a long spell in a convent, can’t be told of the real purpose of her visit; instead, she believes Marianne is there to be her companion — a sort of friend-cum-chaperone conscripted by her mother (Valeria Golino) to provide company for her fragile convalescence.

As a tentative friendship blossoms between the two young women, and then begins to tip toward something more, Héloïse makes it clear that she would rather go back to the convent (“It’s a life that has its advantages. There’s a library… you can sing or hear music”) than be paired off with some Milanese nobleman she’s never even met. Or could there be a third option, somewhere between the nunnery and a loveless marriage?

The movie’s set pieces are mostly episodic, if hardly incidental to the plot: long, leisurely afternoons of card-playing and harpsichord; a midnight bonfire that bursts into a kind of carnal chorale ecstasy; a home-administered medical procedure Sciamma lights like a Renaissance painting.

What thrums beneath every scene is a sort of fraught longing — for a love that could not speak its name, certainly, but also for all the larger liberties that women living in the 1700s, even ones as privileged as these, couldn’t dream of: the freedom to marry by choice or not at all; the freedom to earn an independent living; the freedom just to walk down an empty beach, alone.

In that sense, Sciamma (Water Lilies) feels like both a sister and an acolyte of directors like Jane Campion, the Oscar-winning New Zealand auteur behind The Piano, Top of the Lake, and maybe not coincidentally, 1996’s Portrait of a Lady — a keen-eyed chronicler of female desire and its subjugation but also of its enduring, almost elemental power.

There’s no arguing that Portrait‘s two stars, Merlant and Haenel (who until recently was Sciamma’s long-term partner) are conventionally gorgeous: They look like French movie stars, because they are. But the fierce, tender performances they deliver land far from merely pretty; together, they’re the flame at the center of the film. “Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?” Héloïse asks, running her fingers across Marianne’s mouth. Of course they do; and somehow, believing makes it true. A–

(Portrait of a Lady on Fire is in limited theaters starting Dec. 6, and expands to wide release on Feb. 14)

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