Love at first sight is a fairy-tale fantasy that grows less beautiful the more you think about it. Can you really love someone if you don’t know them? And how can you know them at a single glance? Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, which has to be the most rapturously romantic movie of the year (if not of the last few), is a story of love at umpteenth sight. For two hours, the film’s characters—two women who meet on the edge of society and propriety—never stop studying each other, their eyes sweeping across candlelit rooms and windswept cliffs, the increasing intensity of their gaze and simmer of their passion melting the barriers between them. To fall for someone, the French filmmaker posits, is to really see them. And to see them requires time and attention—a process of discovery that only begins with that first look.
What we’re watching is a seduction, mutual and very gradual, and the movie seduces its audience, too, drawing us in with the striking vividness of its imagery and the quiet patience of its storytelling. It takes a minute to even parse the details of the plot. Why, we wonder for a brief stretch, has a young painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), arrived by sea to a secluded island in Brittany? It’s 1760, and, as it’s soon revealed, she’s been commissioned by the wealthy matriarch (Valeria Golino) of the family estate to produce a portrait of her daughter, Héloïse. The painting will be a gift to a suitor, a kind of receipt of receptiveness to the Milanese stranger who wants to marry the young woman. Except that Héloïse isn’t especially interested in marrying, and has hence refused to sit for any of the painters that have come before. Partially, it’s the circumstances of the arrangement: Héloïse’s sister was the gentleman’s first choice of a bride, before she fell (or possibly jumped) to her death.
We first see Héloïse, played by the French movie star Adèle Haenel, the way the painter does: as a figure of mystery and allure and no small amount of sadness, striding across the grassy sprawl of the property, her back to the camera, a sudden gust of wind blowing her hood down to reveal a head of blond hair. It’s the first detail Marianne commits to memory. To get the job done, she’ll have to do some posing of her own, pretending to be there simply as company for her subject, when in fact she’s drawing a mental picture of Héloïse’s anatomy and features—the arc of her earlobe, the way she crosses her hands while sitting—then putting it to canvas in secret. This element of deception provides an ache of moral dilemma. Marianne isn’t just lying to the person with whom she spends her afternoons. In capturing her image without her consent, she’s hastening Héloïse’s passage into a life she doesn’t want.
Then again, Marianne may have reasons other than guilt to be bothered by the prospect of someone whisking away her new companion, especially once both women begin to let their guards down and get to know each other. “It explains all your looks,” Héloïse says, wounded, when she learns the truth. But of course it doesn’t explain them, not entirely. In Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, the subterfuge of the painter’s process is at once a metaphor and a catalyst for the inconvenient blossoming of infatuation: the private motives of stolen glimpses, wandering eyes acting on directive of the heart. Not that Marianne’s yearning runs one way. To watch this film about watching—at times, it plays like a gallery of mirrored, voyeuristic close-ups—is to be made a silent third party in a game of hesitant, reciprocal courtship. Though not quite a two-hander, Portrait finds its drama in the intensifying, electrifying chemistry between its leads, unspoken until it finally isn’t. Their first consummation is verbal, not physical: an exchange of intimate observations, the kind of tics of personality that only the besotted notice. It’s as sexy as any sex scene.
This is a quantum creative leap for Sciamma, herself a keen observer of behavior. (Her previous films, like Tomboy and Girlhood, were rich with character detail.) Time traveling to an old world seems to unlock the full scope of her passion and insight. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is one of those period pieces that truly envelops the viewer in the period it recreates; we are invited not just to luxuriate in the low light and routines of another era, but to experience its more deliberate pace, the way the minutes might have passed then and there. At the same time, the film’s soul is defiantly modern. Sciamma recognizes her heroines, drawn into the tractor beams of each other’s attraction, as kindred spirits of resistance—Héloïse balking at the life her sister escaped only in death, Marianne navigating around the limitations put upon female artists in the 18th century. There’s a subplot, touching if maybe not crucial, about the family’s housekeeper (Luàna Bajrami), seeking reprieve from the hand she’s been dealt as a young woman. And Sciamma almost entirely removes men from the mise-en-scène—through their general absence, but also through pointed obscuration. (We never see the face of Héloïse’s husband-to-be, for example.)
It’s worth mentioning that Sciamma and her star, Haenel, were once an item. That’s not mere tabloid trivia. Their history together may inform the film’s own gaze, bittersweet in its longing: the way Héloïse looms over the picture like a beacon of beauty and a specter of melancholy, the way Sciamma frames her as a radiant object of desire without objectifying her. Is Marianne’s canvas so different from the lens of a filmmaker? From its very first scene, which cuts among the watchful eyes in a room full of art students, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire conflates romantic and creative pursuit, arguing for curiosity—a genuine interest in the deeper truth of who or whatever you’re fixated upon—as the key to both. Notably, Marianne’s first attempt at a painting is a failure, because she can’t yet see Héloïse, in all of her emotional texture. It’s only when the two become collaborators, when one becomes a willing subject, that they’re able to create something meaningful together. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire does just that, straight up to its all-timer of an ending, a supernova of feeling expressed and provoked. For us, watching a watcher, it’s love at last sight.
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is now available on Hulu.