Céline Sciamma’s subdued and devastating melodrama Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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Just about everything constitutes flirting in director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire—that’s just the way it is when you’re a queer woman in the 18th century and nearly every way you might want to overtly express yourself is stifled. A sleepy spy movie that turns into a slow-burn romance that then becomes a tragic catharsis, its plot is mid-concept melodrama: It is the late 1700s and Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives on an island to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who is about to be married off to a nobleman (only because Héloïse’s sister, who was supposed to marry this guy, died; she likely committed suicide). See, Héloïse prevented the previous artist hired to do the portrait from completing it and so, Marianne will paint the portrait secretly, pretending to be there to accompany a distraught Héloïse on walks around the island, walks that will double as way for her to pick up on Héloïse’s features and paint the portrait without her ever posing for it.

The tension you expect to build surrounding this subterfuge is resolved fairly early. Marianne completes the portrait and admits to Héloïse why she’s really there and the portrait is destroyed—she angrily smears the paint, making a Francis Bacon by accident—and the rest of the movie is spent with far more compelling tensions. Namely, that Marianne and Héloïse totally like-like each other and are feeling out how to show and declare that—in 18th-century France, mind you—and as women, are locating, together and separately, any and every way to be themselves and help anyone else who might want to feel even somewhat free. The whole hang-out-with-someone-so-you-can-paint-them-in-secret thing is a metaphor for falling in love or even lusting over someone—those early parts of relationship that involve being a bit deceptive, though in good faith and out of self-preservation—and the movie details the time-warping qualities of love and lust. Portrait of a Lady on Fire drifts once they kiss, and small moments are what matter—Héloïse lifting her arm and revealing armpit hair, Marianne touching it—even as the inevitable arrival of this nobleman who is going to marry Héloïse haunts every moment.

Sciamma is seemingly sampling historical romance cliches (fancy paintings, gorgeous clothes, castles) and using them to construct a version of the past not often seen about people who are usually overlooked. Early on, Marianne sits in front of a fire, naked, smoking a pipe. Later, she shares the pipe with Héloïse, a move that here ends up just seeming incredibly, well, hot. And their romantic tension intensifies through political acts: They assist a maid who wants an abortion and attend a cathartic, all-women gathering on the beach. The movie is closest to weird period pieces combining the expressive and the deadpan like Monte Hellman’s Iguana, Tony Stone’s Severed Ways, Mika Kaurismäki’s The Girl King, Lucretia Martel’s Zama.

What looks like a staid costume drama is more like if Chantal Ackerman got ahold of a Merchant-Ivory movie. Likely, this will trick a certain key demographic for a lot of respectable, arthouse movies—“an elderly demographic from the outskirts of the city who warily ventures downtown for a matinee and then gets the fuck out of Dodge,” as Eric Allen Hatch once wrote—into sitting down only to witness a queer romance that stealthily dismantles the movies they expect and still looks very good doing it. Even the act of painting and all of the studying, thinking, and feeling that goes into making art are on display here; it is rare to see process given so much time and so many loving close-ups of incomplete work. The ending, meanwhile, is really something else. Grand, gestural filmmaking and acting that dissolves the narrative and bends the movie back to a quiet moment an hour earlier when things were simpler and we could still pretend it maybe could go another way for these women.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire screens at the Charles Theater starting Friday, February 28. Girlhood, Céline Sciamma’s 2015 movie, screens at the Creative Alliance on March 24 at 7 p.m.



Incitement (Yaron Zilberman, Israel, 2019). Fri-Wed: 12:55, 6:55; Thurs: 12:55, 9:35

JoJo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 9:35; Sun: 4:00, 7:00; Mon: 1:00, 4:00; Tues-Wed: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 9:35; Thurs: 1:00, 4:00, 6:45, 9:35

Revival: Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, UK, 1949. Sat: 11:30 a.m.; Mon: 7:00; Thurs: 9:00

The Lodge (Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 3:55, 9:35; Sun-Mon: 3:55; Tues-Wed: 3:55, 9:35; Thurs: 3:55

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band (Daniel Roher, US, 2020). Fri: 12:45, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30; Sun-Mon: 12:45, 3:45, 6:40; Tues-Thurs: 12:45, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019). Fri: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30; Sat: 6:40, 9:30; Sun-Mon: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40; Tues-Thurs: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30

Portrait Of a Lady On Fire (Céline Sciamma, France, 2019). Fri-Sat: 1:00, 3:50, 6:50, 9:30; Sun: 1:00, 3:50, 6:50; Mon: 1:00, 3:50, 6:45; Tues-Wed: 1:00, 3:50, 6:50, 9:30; Thurs: 1:00, 3:50, 6:45


Ali (Michael Mann, US, 2001). Sat: 1:00, Reisterstown Road Branch

Eve’s Bayou (Kasi Lemmons, US, 1997). Sat: 11:00 a.m., Canton Branch

The Kitchen (Andrea Berloff, US, 2019). Mon: 5:00, Pennsylvania Avenue Branch

The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements and John Musker, US, 1989). Tues: 3:30, Reisterstown Road Branch

Maestro (Léa Fazer, France, 2014). Mon: 2:00, Central Library

Maryland on Film VI. Sat: 2:00, Central Library

Much Ado About Nothing (Kenneth Branagh, UK/US, 2003). Sat: 10:30 a.m., Roland Park Branch

School Of Rock (Richard Linklater, US, 2003). Wed: 12:30, Roland Park Branch


And Then We Danced (Levan Akin, Sweden, 2019). Fri: 4:00, 6:45; Sat: 1:00, 6:45, 9:15; Sun: 1:00, 6:45; Mon: 9:15; Tues-Wed: 9:15; Thurs: 6:45

Fantastic Fungi (Louie Schwartzberg, US, 2019). Fri: 12:45, 9:45; Sat: 4:00; Sun: 12:45; Wed: 6:45; Thurs: 9:30

MICA Film & Animation Festival. Sun: 4:00

Premature (Rashaad Ernesto Green, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 1:15, 4:15, 7:00, 10:00; Sun: 1:15, 4:15, 7:00; Mon: 7:00, 10:00; Tues-Thurs: 7:00, 9:45

Seberg (Benedict Andrews, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 1:30, 3:45, 7:15, 9:30; Sun: 3:45, 7:15; Mon: 7:15, 9:30; Tues-Thurs: 7:15, 9:30

Yeelen (Souleymane Cissé, Mali, Burkina Faso, France, West Germany, Japan, 1987). Tues: 7:00 (free screening)


1917 (Sam Mendes, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:45, 6:40, 9:40; Sun: 12:45, 6:40; Mon: 6:40; Tues: 12:45, 6:40, 9:40; Wed: 12:45, 6:40; Thurs: 12:45, 6:50

The Assistant (Kitty Green, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 3:50, 9:45; Sun: 10:05 a.m., 3:50; Mon: 3:50; Tues: 3:50, 9:45; Wed-Thurs: 3:50, 9:45

The Call Of The Wild (Chris Sanders, US, 2020). Fri-Sat: 12:50, 4:00, 6:45, 9:35; Sun: 9:45 a.m., 12:50, 4:00, 6:45; Mon: 12:50, 4:00, 6:45; Tues: 12:50, 4:00, 6:45, 9:35; Wed: 12:50, 4:00, 9:35; Thurs: 12:50, 3:30, 7:00, 9:35

Revival: Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, US, 1964). Sun: 10:00 a.m., Mon: 1:00

Little Women (Greta Gerwig, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:35, 3:35, 6:35; Sun: 9:40 a.m., 12:35, 3:35, 6:35; Mon: 12:35, 3:35, 6:35; Tues: 12:35, 3:35, 6:35; Wed: 12:35, 3:35, 6:35; Thurs: 12:35, 3:35

Onward (Dan Scanlon, US, 2020). Thurs: 6:00, 8:30

Sonic The Hedgehog (Jeff Fowler, US, 2020). Fri-Sat: 1:00, 3:40, 7:00, 9:30; Sun: 1:00, 3:40, 7:00; Mon: 1:00, 3:40, 7:00; Tues: 1:00, 3:40, 7:00, 9:30; Wed-Thurs: 1:00, 3:40, 7:00, 9:30

Revival: Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart, US, 1971). Wed: 7:30

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