Watch The Trailer
Storyline (warning: spoilers)
The setting is 18th-century Brittany, where an Italian noblewoman has engaged what is officially a ladies’ companion for her beautiful daughter, Héloïse, who has just come out of a convent and is recovering from the loss of her sister. The companion, Marianne, is actually an artist, and the countess wishes her to paint a portrait of Héloïse in secret, to be shown to a wealthy prospective husband in Milan, because headstrong Héloïse would never consent to sitting for any such picture. A previous artist was fired.
Marianne and Héloïse duly go out for walks, with Marianne making intense, furtive scrutiny of her mistress’s face, committing it to memory in order to put it on paper in private. Yet Héloïse is aware of these intimate glances, and perhaps begins to misinterpret them. Or is she, in fact, not misinterpreting them? Soon, Marianne becomes uneasily preoccupied with her predecessor’s abandoned, half-finished work – a disturbingly fractured image. She confesses the ruse and declares herself angrily dissatisfied with her own specious and facile portrait, spoiling it to make it look like a Francis Bacon nightmare. And having allowed us to perceive the blandness of that first attempt, Sciamma cleverly shows how the second portrait differs intriguingly from the pose that Héloïse grants Marianne as their relationship begins to thaw. Her pictured face looks indirectly, askance at the viewer but with a more disapproving look than exists in real life, without the intriguing half-smile that Adèle Haenel has. Their relationship develops, and they also conspire to help the maidservant Sophie with a personal problem.
The movie brings the erotic together with the cerebral. A discussion of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth turns on how Orpheus could possibly have turned to look, fatally, at his love. Could it be, as Marianne thinks, that he had a lover’s view, and not an artist’s: that he wanted the passionate, authentic fleeting intensity of the real image, rather than that frozen varnished permanence that pictures show us, and that we somehow assume we can approximate with monogamous love?