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.