The twist in Céline Sciamma’s intriguing but inert take on the genre is that the couple is two women: Marianne (Noémie Merlant) has arrived at the stately Brittany home of Héloise (Adèle Haenel) to paint her portrait, which is to be sent directly to a potential suitor in Milan in the 18th-century equivalent of match.com. Héloise, a moody young woman given to deep, meaningful looks and moody walks on the beach, has no interest in posing, which is why her strategically-minded mother (Valeria Golino) has asked Marianne to pursue her enterprise in secret, gathering her material from observational subterfuge.
That contrivance and the stolen glances it entails gives “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” an extra frisson of danger, even if Sciamma and her audience know exactly where this will lead: Drenched in fetishistic pleasures (those bodices!) and a faint mist of tragedy, the film is less about the narrative itself than its attempt to marry eroticism and feminist theory. As an exercise in watching — Marianne watches Héloise, who watches Marianne, as the viewers watch them both — “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” becomes a critical treatise on the male gaze, which for a century has reduced women to passive objects. Much in the same way Lorene Scafaria played with those ideas in “Hustlers” last year, Sciamma obviously has fun subverting those traditional norms; and, like Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” her film is steeped in the economics of marriage as a form of security and lifelong servitude.
If Sciamma’s imagery (diaphanous scarves and, in one sequence, a strategically placed mirror) is often too-obvious, and her love for pregnant silences and doleful stares begins to feel tiresome, the filmmaker makes sure that “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” looks sensational: Claire Mathon’s sensuous cinematography, glowing with candlelight and embers, is as much a character as the gorgeous women on screen. True to its title, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” generates more than its share of heat, even if it never truly becomes an engulfing flame.
R. At area theaters. Contains some nudity and sexuality. In French with subtitles. 121 minutes.