French filmmaker Céline Sciamma’s exquisite “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” begins in an 18th-century drawing class for young women, with a teacher (Noémie Merlant) posing for her students. She tells them, “Take time to look at me.”
And that’s essentially what this film does, languorously and beautifully: It takes time to let us look at women looking at each other. After the opening scene, the film flashes back several years and we learn that the teacher is Marianne, an artist traveling to an island in 1770 Brittany. She’s been hired to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who has just left a convent and is engaged to be married. It’s a challenging commission, as Heloise does not want to be painted (or married, for that matter); Marianne is told by Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino) to befriend her daughter and watch her carefully, then paint the portrait in secret.
Watch she does, and so do we, on walks to the island’s rock-strewn beach, and in the velvety candlelight of the house. The observant Marianne, a woman whose stillness suggests something carefully hidden, studies every detail: Héloïse’s ears, her hands, the way the fabric of a dress drapes in soft folds. The women begin to converse, but there’s no small talk in this film; everything they say seems to carry weight. (Of her days in the convent, Héloïse observes, “Equality is a pleasant feeling.”) And finally, inevitably, all that gazing has an effect: The two women realize that they are in love.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a slow burn; little happens, but everything — love and passion and loss — happens. Claire Mathon’s painterly cinematography finds art in every frame: the vivid color of the women’s unadorned dresses — blooms of blue, russet, green — punctuating the landscape; the bouquet of hues on Marianne’s worn palette; the faded spatters on Marianne’s hands; an eerie vision of a white-nightgown-clad Héloïse in a hallway, looking like a ghost on a painted-over canvas. Time slows down, letting us savor these moments; just as time slows for Marianne and Héloïse, who know that their love affair cannot last.
There’s a minimalism to the film — the few words, the spare design of the sets and costumes, the isolation of the characters — that makes every detail resonate. (Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is heard, like a gorgeous storm howling at the windows.) In this tiny world of women, the future — for Marianne as an artist, or for the two of them as a couple — holds no promise, so they cling quietly to each other, grasping love however briefly they can. “Do all lovers,” wonders Héloïse in a passionate moment, “feel as though they’re inventing something?” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” a bittersweet celebration of passion and art, feels like that; you’ve never seen another movie quite like this. In its quiet gaze, love becomes art — and vice versa.
★★★★ “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” with Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino. Written and directed by Céline Sciamma. 119 minutes. Rated R for some nudity and sexuality. In French, with English subtitles. Opens Feb. 21 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian, Lincoln Square Reserve (21+).