A memorable love story can reflect interior emotions in every frame of the filmmaking, messy and alive. Other films set the torment and tumult of what the characters are feeling against a cooler, deliberately contrasting aesthetic.
The wonder of "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," which I saw late last year just in time to reorder my Top 10 list, lies in how writer-director Celine Sciamma creates a love story that lives and breathes in a cinematic space almost precisely midway between those two polarities.
This is a film dominated by women's faces, women's desire and the space afforded women in a specific place (the Brittany coast) and time (the 18th century). Aesthetic control means everything to the first character we meet in Sciamma's story. Clutching a wooden crate containing her painting canvases, artist Marianne — a hawk-eyed observer played with fine-tuned calibration by Noemie Merlant — arrives by boat to the remote coastal estate of a noblewoman (Valeria Golino). Marianne has been commissioned to paint a portrait of the woman's daughter. It's an enticement for potential suitors, and already there's a Milanese nobleman on the hook.
Sciamma layers the intrigue straight away. We learn in the opening minutes that the daughter, Heloise, thwarted an earlier attempt to put a version of her on canvas. Marianne must pretend to be simply a walking companion. Then, from memory and stolen moments of furtive pencil sketching, she's to create the portrait in private, when alone in her elegant, fire-lit room. The film is full of paradoxical images, as when Marianne sits naked, smoking a pipe, before a crackling fireplace while her water-logged canvases dry out. Here, and throughout much of Sciamma's elegant narrative, she's both the posed subject and the contemplative artist.
We don't see Heloise's face for 20 minutes or so. Sciamma and her invaluable cinematographer, Claire Mathon (who shot "Atlantics," no less expressively), treat her initially like a Hitchcockian object of desire. When we finally get a close-up of Adele Haenel, it's almost comically forthright. Confined to a holy order for much of her young adulthood, she's eager to live what little life of her own she has, before the inevitable marriage she does not want.
The surreptitious games begin. The painting comes together, and the women grow closer and closer, half in secret, half out in the open. At one point Marianne, in voiceover, speaks of the "warm and transparent hue" the human earlobe requires on a canvas. In sunshine or starlight or candlelight, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" captures that same hue.
It's a chamber piece, with no more characters than absolutely necessary. The maid Sophie (Luana Bajrami) harbors her own story, her own secrets. There's a strong sisterhood theme in Sciamma's scenario; when Sophie and company join a nocturnal, ritualistic a cappella song ("La Jeune Fille en Feu," a serious beaut) on the beach one night, it's a genuinely transporting sequence. Not much music finds its way on the soundtrack, but what's there is crucial. Vivaldi's "Violin Concerto in G Minor," heard twice and strategically, ends up crystallizing the love story in ways we don't see coming.
That ending pays off extraordinarily well. I suppose the film has its didactic side. Certainly, and with supreme deliberation, Sciamma has made her most restrained and classically inclined picture yet. The style suits the subject, needless to say, and as different as "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" may be, for example, from her compelling contemporary character study "Girlhood," it's no less vivid.
The film's American distributor, Neon, just made hay on its deft handling of "Parasite." I don't think they're doing Sciamma any favors with the chosen "Portrait" tagline — "cinema's greatest love story" sets expectations insanely high. Already, though, Sciamma's film has struck a resounding international chord. The sheer beauty of the storytelling would be remarkable even if the performances, which are both period-apt and urgently contemporary, weren't just as remarkable.