The allure of a portrait is the suggestion of the secret. Just look at the one of Lisa del Giocondo. We know when she was born, June 15, 1479, and we know Leonardo da Vinci painted her sometime in the early 16th century. But we don’t know why she is smiling. A simple, enigmatic smile, one that says: I know a secret and you don’t.

A similar secret lies at the heart of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the newest movie from writer/director Céline Sciamma and one of the year’s best.

The subject is Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young woman who is about to be married. Her husband has no idea what she looks like, so a portrait must be painted to send. The problem, Héloïse won’t sit for one. The answer: Hire a young artist, Marianne (Noémi Merlant), have her pose as handmaid who will accompany Héloïse on her walks along the Brittany coast and paint the portrait in secret.

As she paints, Marianne finds herself attracted to Hélïose, and Héloïse reciprocates.

There are many stories about artists falling in love with their subjects and the fiery hot passion that arises from secret love. But Portrait of a Lady on Fire is different. It is tender, sensual, loving. Maybe because Sciamma has been romantically involved with Haenel (her performance is nothing short of spectacular), and the underlying subtext of autobiography carries a fair share of the weight. Or maybe because Sciamma takes desire beyond the simple act of looking and touching.

Like those violent waves crashing on the beach, or a passion that suddenly bursts into flames, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a symphony of emotion, some on the surface, some buried well beneath. Buried until the movie’s final image, a single shot where the dam bursts and everything spoken and unspoken, felt and unfelt, expressed and unexpressed can no longer be contained.

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma
Produced by Véronique Cayla, Bénédicte Couvreur
Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino
Neon, Rated R, Running time 119 minutes, Opens December 6, 2019