Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★½

Halfway through Céline Sciamma’s razor-sharp and shatteringly romantic “Portrait of a Lady Fire” — as perfect a film as any to have premiered this year — the three main characters sit around a candlelit dinner table and argue the meaning of what happened between Orpheus and Eurydice. More specifically, the point of contention hinges on what motivated Orpheus to ignore the instructions he was given and turn around to look at his love, even though he knew it would cause her to vanish from the world forever.

Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), a naïve young house servant, opts for the most literal interpretation of the ancient tale: She insists that Orpheus was an idiot. But Héloïse (a brilliant Adèle Haenel), the older, booksmart, but similarly inexperienced daughter of the absent widow who owns the place, awakens to a different understanding. To her mind, Orpheus was completely in control of his wits, he just decided to choose the memory of Eurydice over the real thing. And why not? Eurydice has already died once, and there’s no telling how long her second life might last. But in Orpheus’ heart, she will always be young and perfect. Perhaps it’s better to keep her there.

As with each of Sciamma’s three previous features, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a profoundly tender story about the process of self-discovery and becoming. But while all of her work has been immaculate in one way or the other, and her 2007 debut — about the sexual awakening of a girl on a synchronized swimming team — was even dubbed “Water Lilies” for its English release, this is the first of her films that could be described as “painterly.” And while all of her work has been about the images that her characters project, this one is more concerned with the ones they leave behind. Austere where “Tomboy” was anxious, and hesitant where “Girlhood” was recklessly confident, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a period romance that’s traditional in some ways, progressive in others, and altogether so damn true that it might feel more like staring into a mirror than it does running your eyes over a canvas.

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