French filmmaker Céline Sciamma, who directed Girlhood and wrote Being 17 and the insouciant animated film My Life as a Zucchini, makes her most ambitious film yet in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu). Sciamma’s 19th-century story ventures into what we think of as the literary past —The Brontës, Stendhal and, of course, Henry James — for a love story that fashionably goes against convention.
Painter and art teacher Marianne (Noémie Merlant) reminisces about being retained to create the portrait of a noblewoman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The painting was to be an inducement for marriage to an Italian aristocrat, part of the custom when women’s futures were traded by invisible patriarchs, even when enacted by other women, such as Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino), who sets the terms of Marianne’s employment.
Marianne, a hard-faced feminist pioneer, uses her craft to break the force of the patriarchy. She “invents” (Sciamma’s conceit for progressive intent) a radical incident: falling in love with Héloïse.
Whenever Sciamma applies artistic practice as metaphors for the phases of Marianne and Héloïse’s romance and intimacy — the placing of hands when posing, the idea of painting life from the eye vs. painting from memory — the movie feels excitingly sensitive and formally daring. Marianne first attempts the painting without Héloïse’s full awareness. “Is it feasible?” she wonders. Sciamma depicts the time the women share as romantic suspense.
The film peaks when Marianne struggles to get a close, unobstructed look at her subject’s face. The mystery of personality animates the first sight of Héloïse, following her as she runs toward the beach: her hair, then her enrobed body, her rushed breathing, her legs lifting vigorously, her presence energized. When she stops and turns toward Marianne, Adèle Haenel’s wild, green eyes vividly contrast Merlant’s dark, beady-eyed secretiveness. At this moment, the filmmaker’s own excitement can be felt. Not just sensual, Haenel is a real-life, fire-breathing icon. But then, unfortunately, Sciamma goes for a polemic.
The remainder of Portrait of a Lady on Fire has to do with cultural transgression: women performing masculine pipe-smoking taboos, discussing music and art: “Is the portrait not close to you?” the subject asks the painter. “Your presence is made up of fleeting moments that are not true,” is the painter’s strategized, intellectual answer.
Fact is, Sciamma doesn’t trust the expressiveness of her medium; despite deft technique, she stages obvious agitprop, such as the postcoital modeling scene featuring a coyly placed hand mirror that reflects the liberated painter forging her new identity.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire defeats itself through Sciamma’s schematized sexual politics. Marianne and Héloïse befriend a pregnant young housekeeper (Luàna Bajrami) and after attending an all-female “festival,” which features a coven’s high-decibel chanting, they aid her efforts at abortion. This midwife scene is Sciamma’s coup de grâce: The maid undergoes life-termination while holding the hand of the midwife’s own cooing infant. Marianne turns away from the unsavory ritual until Héloïse shouts “Regardez!” — insisting that she bear witness.
Sciamma doubles up her coup de grâce — actually a coup de disgrace — with Marianne restaging the abortion for a commemorative portrait. In an interview, Sciamma lamented that prejudiced, male-dominated art historians have obscured the work of female painters, but her on-screen suggestion that abortion was a subject of 19th-century genre painting seems fanciful.
Not content to rival Jacques Rivette’s long, extended artist-and-model nude collaboration scenes in the Eighties art-house hit La Belle Noiseuse (an adaptation of Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece), Sciamma betrays her cinematic heritage. She plays propaganda games like lesser filmmakers, such as Todd Haynes, whose lesbian melodrama Carol made homosexuality tendentious. Before this, Sciamma seemed one of the most promising new filmmakers for rising above political point-making. Now she offers weak in-jokes: Héloïse inquires of worldly Marianne about music, asking “Is it merry?” rather than “gay.”
This self-conscious approach to “queerness” embarrasses Sciamma’s talent for expressing emotional complexity, as her mentor André Téchiné did in the superb Being 17. Portrait of a Lady on Fire — a bold title fusing Henry James’s psychological acuity to Alicia Keys’s pop audacity — should have been as sensually powerful as Truffaut’s Brontë-esque films The Story of Adèle H. and Two English Girls, while cinematographer Claire Mathon also evokes the neoclassical palette of Rohmer’s The Marquise of O. Instead, it’s as sentimental and predictable as Carol. (A male heterosexual filmmaker who excluded women would be shamed out of the canon.)
The opera-house finale, featuring a distanced reunion, portrays a woman’s sexual awakening and regret as a mawkish tragedy greater than any other life event. In this stunt ending, Sciamma seems to have forgotten her previous invocation of Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, when Marianne and Héloïse ponder an artist’s choice between love and memory. Trying for a classic queer tragedy, Sciamma reduces her story to maudlin teenage obsession. Maybe that’s her basic subject.