Although I'm counting this as a 2020 release, since it opened in American theaters in February, Portrait of a Lady on Fire was hailed by several critics – mostly those outside the US – as one of 2019's greatest films. On the surface, I was skeptical: trailers made the film look like a French lesbian bodice ripper, replete with windswept seascape and eighteenth century dress. What surprises, then, is not the same-sex sensuality but the film's poignant ruminations on love, memory, sisterhood, art, and the simple but profound act of looking at a person's face.
Noémie Merlant plays Marianne, an unmarried painter who is dispatched to an island in Brittany in order to complete a wedding portrait of a young woman named Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), forcibly withdrawn from convent life by her mother (Valeria Golino) in order to marry a Milanese stranger who was betrothed to Héloïse's sister until she apparently killed herself in protest. Héloïse is no happier about her upcoming nuptials than her late sister was, and thus refuses to sit for the painting that will bond her to her future husband. Marianne is thus told to merely act as Héloïse's companion for a week, discreetly studying her face and then working on her portrait in private.
Of course Marianne and Héloïse become attracted to one another, as nearly anyone going into the film already knows. But what's interesting is how writer/director Céline Sciamma takes such a slow burn approach to their inevitable coupling, and then handles it with a bittersweet joy instead of relying on the clichés inherent to "forbidden love" stories. It's enormously comforting to realize that you are not going to see any villagers with torches, any violent cuckolds, any treacherous clergy. (In fact, for 95% of the film's run time, there's not a single man in sight.) Marianne and Héloïse are realists: they understand their time together is fleeting, owing to societal mores, so they simply try to enjoy the moment and commit to memory what they can.
It's worthwhile comparing Portrait of a Lady on Fire to Blue Is the Warmest Color, a Gallic tale of lesbian obsession made by a heterosexual man. Whereas Blue's sex scenes felt like softcore pornography meant to fulfill its director's own fantasies, Portrait's eroticism comes from a place of trust and equality. Likewise, Sciamma is as fascinated with the hidden world of 18th century women – not to mention the process of oil painting – as she is with her characters' romantic relationship. (Luàna Bajrami, as a soft-spoken maid going through her own quiet drama, is treated with as much respect as her employers.)
This is still a glossy romance, however, and while Merlant and Haenel are perfectly suited to Claire Mathon's breathtaking cinematography, I found them just a tad too glamorous and modern to convince as women of their era. (Haenel, who has an appropriately watchable face, is well-cast; Merlant is lovely and talented, but it would have been a bolder choice to have a butch-looking actress play Marianne.) It's the smallest of quibbles, however. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an enchanting film, with several scenes that are pure magic.