Two women in Victorian-looking dresses

Marianne (Noemie Merlant, right) has been hired to paint the wedding portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel) in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Valentine’s Day is long gone, but a couple of non-mainstream movies are hoping to bring romance back to Columbus screens. And they’ll go about it in very different ways.

France’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the kind of elegant period piece that relies on atmosphere, long pauses and meaningful glances. And, oh yes, it also throws in choice moments of nudity and explicit sexuality – just so you’ll know you’re not watching a French adaptation of Jane Austen. 

The tale begins in the late 18th century as an artist named Marianne (Noemie Merlant) travels to an island estate to paint a bride’s wedding portrait. Once there, she learns that the assignment is not as straightforward as it seems.

Her subject, Heloise (Adele Haenel), has been forcibly snatched from a convent to replace her deceased sister at the altar. Not only is she an unwilling bride but an unwilling model, having rejected a previous artist’s attempt to capture her image on canvas.

To prevent this from happening again, Heloise’s mother (Valeria Golino) tells her that Marianne has been hired to keep her company on her walks. This forces Marianne to rely on her memory and on scribbled sketches in order to paint the portrait, which she must do in secret. 

It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to guess where the slowly developing relationship between the artist and her lonely subject is headed. Thanks to the talented hands of director/screenwriter Celine Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon, however, the film makes its preordained journey in a graceful succession of gorgeous images.

Unfortunately, Sciamma eventually breaks the spell by inserting a dollop of modern feminist sensibilities—and doing it less skillfully than Greta Gerwig did in last year’s Little Women. She also manufactures some 11th-hour drama in a way that is less than convincing.

Beyond such missteps, this is an entrancing tale told with restraint, sensitivity and shimmering beauty.

As French and period-immersive as Portrait is, that’s how American and up-to-date Premature is. Specifically, it’s set in Harlem, where 17-year-old Ayanna (Zora Howard) is looking forward to college and the chance to hone her skills as a poet.

Unlike her boisterous girlfriends, Ayanna is not interested in partying and casual hookups. But then she meets 20-something Isaiah (Joshua Boone), a budding music composer/producer who actually seems to take her dreams and talent seriously. A passionate (and sometimes explicitly photographed) romance follows, leading to physical and emotional complications that threaten to upend her plans.

What happens to Ayanna is hardly groundbreaking, but director Rashaad Ernesto Green – who co-wrote the script with his star, Howard – depicts it in a way that avoids both mushy sentimentality and artificial melodramatics. Ayanna comes off as just what she is: a smart, self-sufficient girl who’s knocked off-balance by first love and all its attendant emotions and consequences.

The script is careful not to create heroes or villains. Ayanna’s mother, Sarita (Michelle Wilson), seems insufficiently concerned as her teenage daughter spends more and more time with her older boyfriend, but she obviously wants what’s best for her. As for that boyfriend, Isaiah is also a mixture, sometimes showing genuine interest in Ayanna and other times acting petulant and immature. Since we mostly see him through her inexperienced eyes, he often remains a mystery.

All of the roles, big and small, are beautifully acted. Like Portrait, the film is also photographed beautifully—in this case, by cinematographer Laura Valladao.

In most romantic tales, the big question is whether love will triumph at the end. In Premature, the more-important question is whether Ayanna will find her way out of the maze she’s stumbled into and back to the future she’s always wanted.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Premature: 4 stars (out of 5)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Premature (both rated R) open March 6 at the Gateway Film Center.

More reviews by Richard Ades can be found on his blog,

Ayanna (Zora Howard) and her new boyfriend, Isaiah (Joshua Boone), share a subway ride in Premature. (Astute Films)

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