The title of Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” implies that her subversively seductive film will focus on the subject of its titular painting — an 18th-century woman who refuses to pose, in defiance of the arranged marriage into which she’s being forced — when it’s just as much a portrait of the artist responsible. How fitting, when one considers that Sciamma, the writer-director of “Water Lilies,” has adoringly crafted this project for that film’s star, Adèle Haenel, who beguiles audiences here with all that’s hidden behind her Mona Lisa smile.
One of four female-made features to premiere in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Portrait” dares to engage directly with the questions of representation and gender that seem to have flummoxed the film industry of late, broadening its focus to the subject of womanhood itself at a time documented almost exclusively by men. Though this gorgeous, slow-burn lesbian romance works strongly enough on a surface level, one can hardly ignore the fact, as true then as it is now, that the world looks different when seen through a woman’s eyes.
How many female artists before Frida Kahlo can you name? In 1770, when most of the movie takes place, the opportunities were limited, and according to Sciamma’s research, they were mostly restricted to painting other women — which is how Marianna (Noémie Merlant) comes to land the unusual assignment with which the film is concerned: Héloïse (Haenel), daughter of a French countess (Valeria Golino), has been called back from the convent following the death of her sister and betrothed to an unknown man from Milan. To make it official, the countess commissions a wedding portrait, on the sly, instructing Marianna to observe her defiant daughter by day, but paint in private.
Pay close attention to how Sciamma unveils Héloïse, like the first Mrs. de Winter in Alfred Hitchcock’s Gothic “Rebecca,” first through clues into her character and later visually, a puzzle put together in pieces: blond curls glimpsed beneath a hooded cloak or an earlobe seen from the side. It’s an almost cubist way of introducing someone on-screen, whereas Marianna seems to be all eyes. One of the marvelous things about Merlant, the actress who plays the painter, is her preternaturally large irises, curious and all-consuming. Here, she personifies the female gaze, greedily studying every detail of Héloïse, whom she must commit to memory and paint in secret.
This setup renders Héloïse mysterious at first, but in no time, the two women have achieved an equal footing of sorts. Héloïse is a lady, whereas Marianna has no title, but Sciamma brings a sense of modernity to their friendship. Without realizing the reason Marianna seems to be looking at her so closely, Héloïse responds to the force of her regard. And so begins a magnetic attraction whose deliciously long wick smolders seemingly forever before it finally turns physical.
Even then, the payoff for all the film’s sexual tension proves to be largely intellectual, expressed primarily through words rather than the kind of torrid lovemaking scenes Cannes witnessed with “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” (In virtually every way, Sciamma’s rigorously scripted, formally controlled film is the opposite of Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 Palme d’Or winner.) The emphasis on social propriety over raw passion marks a change from Sciamma’s previous work — most notably 2014’s rowdy “Girlhood” and the terrific script she co-wrote for André Téchiné’s queer coming-of-age film “Being 17.” But she’s right to trust the chemistry of her lead actresses, and the restraint allows Sciamma to expand her focus to other female-specific concerns of the time.
For instance, after Marianna confesses the true purpose of her visit to her subject, Héloïse examines the painting and questions the likeness. “There are rules, conventions, ideas,” Marianna explains, referring to the tradition of French portraiture — although she may just as well be describing the patriarchy into which they’ve both been born. As the daughter of a countess (which makes her a “lady”), Héloïse has two options: to marry well and protect her nobility or to enter the nunnery — the path on which she was before her sister’s death (by suicide, the film strongly suggests). But after spending several afternoons with Marianna, Héloïse surprises her mother by agreeing to pose, at which point the countess disappears for five days, leaving the two women alone, accompanied only by the servant Sophie (Luana Bajrami).
Suddenly free from supervision, the pair find opportunity to act on the feelings that have been building between them. Sophie now reveals a secret of her own: She is three months pregnant and must deal with the situation swiftly. Though it pulls our attention away from the smoldering romance, this subplot reinforces “Portrait’s” central theme : So long as male-dominated society deprives women of choice — in whom to marry, whether to bear children, and how their lives are represented in art — there can never be equality, much less anything that can fairly be called freedom.
It’s a bold move on the director’s part to depict the steps Sophie takes in 1770 to bring about an abortion, but an even more radical statement to include a scene in which Marianna paints the procedure itself (omitting a hauntingly surreal detail Sciamma chooses to include, whereby Sophie finds herself staring at an infant as it happens). That statement, never explicitly articulated but impossible to ignore, suggests that the reason abortion remains such a contentious issue today isn’t that the practice is anything new, but that women have been proactively excluded from depicting such experiences in art.
Toward the end, as the two women dare to act on their attraction, they appear to change before our eyes. At this point, Héloïse finds the nerve to ask whether Marianna ever paints nude models. We can guess where a male director might take that thread, but Sciamma instead makes a political point. Even when the clothes do come off, the helmer finds more intimacy in pillow talk than in the acts that precede it. So this is what the female gaze means to Sciamma: looking past surfaces in an attempt to capture deeper emotion — as in a terrific scene where the artist and her model list all the tiny gestures they’ve observed about one another during the short time they’ve spent together. Marianna’s painting may adhere to a certain tradition, objectifying the beauty and poise of its subject, but the film that surrounds it reveals how, in one another’s eyes, these women feel seen for who they truly are.