CREDIT: Lilies Film

Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino

Director: Céline Sciamma

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: R for The Nudity That Emerges When Two Young Women Discover Their Passion for Each Other

Release Date: December 6, 2019 (Limited)/Expands February 14, 2020

When I saw the title Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I had a feeling this was going to be a passionate love story. That sense was certainly bolstered by a poster that showed exactly what was being advertised, as the embers whipped at the bottom of Adèle Haenel’s luscious green dress. Then as I finally began to watch the actual movie, I was introduced to the painting entitled “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” To which I thought, “Oh, is this the literal story behind the creation of the portrait?” And indeed it is, but that doesn’t mean the metaphorical meaning doesn’t also apply, and oh my, this movie is so very ravishingly inflammatory.

Héloïse (Haenel) is the titular lady on fire, but honestly, a more accurate title would have mentioned the second lady who is equally engulfed by a burning desire: Marianne (Noémie Merlant), the woman who has been commissioned to paint Héloïse. Taking place in the eighteenth century, this film is almost a two-hander, with Haenel and Merlant sharing the vast bulk of the screen time and just a couple other characters popping in occasionally. The settings are equally tight, as most of the running time takes place in a few locations that are not very far from each other on a remote island: the painting room, the bedroom, and the beach. These circumstances of close quarters make it feel almost inevitable that Héloïse and Marianne will develop a deep passion for each other. They also warp any sense of temporality. You might find yourself wondering how much time passes while they’re together. Days? Months? Hours? Weeks? Or maybe even decades, and they only appear to remain the same age because they are slipping through various dimensions.

Writer-director Céline Sciamma references and draws heavily upon the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the story of two lovers separated by death and fleetingly working their way back to each other through the whims of the underworld. Héloïse and Marianne are fully aware of the impernance of their entanglement, but they still enter into with the entirety of their souls. They take an almost Buddhist approach to their situation, existing both fully within and outside of time. It’s a fitting achievement for a film taking place within a painted portrait.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is Recommended If You Like: Persona, Cold War, Carol, Orpheus and Eurydice

Grade: 4 out of 5 Sitting Sessions