“Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?” – Marianne, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Truly great romantic movies and gut-wrenching, heart-racing, romantic films, are hard to come by. Past decades have birthed classics such as When Harry Met Sally, Titanic, and The Notebook. As great as those films are, none have come as close to perfection as Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Portrait centers around Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter in the 18th century who is commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of Heloise (Adèle Haenal), a woman who was forced to leave the convent after the death of her sister in order to marry a man whom she’s never met. Previous painters had tried and failed to paint Heloise; all of whom she refused to pose for and fired before they could finish. Thus, as far as Heloise is aware, Marianne was hired by her mother as a maid and companion, someone to provide company and go on walks with along the beach. In reality, Marianne must paint her portrait in secret, stealing glances while trying to go unnoticed.
The stolen glances come to mean something greater, as soon Heloise begins to stare back. Their relationship begins to feel so natural and real that it’s hard to imagine them being apart. When the pair are given a week together as Heloise’s mother leaves the country, the true nature of their feelings for one another finally comes to light in an absolutely heart-stopping outburst of emotion. This is just one of many emotional climaxes of the film. A lesser filmmaker may struggle to achieve such seemingly effortless harmony between these points, but the technical mastery in Portrait is nearly unmatched.
Much of the mastery comes through the uniqueness in the film’s “female gaze,” a deviation from the norm often found in films about women. We do not view Heloise through our own eyes, but rather through Marianne’s. A bit of a blonde curl, a tip of an earlobe, details audiences may not pay attention to if Marianne didn’t study her subject so closely, are brought to live. The beauty of the world seen through Marianne’s gaze is portrayed through more than Heloise: the sweeping shots of French beaches, the natural-yet-beautifully-bright color scheme. Every frame is worthy of being a painting.
A common fear with films featuring LGBTQ characters is that the film will follow the “bury your gays” trope, a trope where the film must end tragically, usually with one or both protagonists dying painfully. Portrait subverts this, likely due to the fact that writer/director Céline Sciamma herself is a lesbian, and Haenel is as well. Political themes are also confidently present, especially ones relating to womanhood. Most obvious is a subplot involving the maid Sophie’s (Luàna Bajrami) abortion, as every step of the procedure is present onscreen. Later, Marianne sketches a recreation of the scene as Sophie and Heloise act as models. The message here is clear: women have always sought this medical care but were never allowed to document it through their art.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire won both the award for Best Screenplay at this year’s Cannes Film Festival as well as the Queer Palm, becoming the first film directed by a woman to do so. While it’s unfortunate that it has taken so long for a queer film made by a woman to be recognized, no film is more deserving of such recognition than Portrait. Technical mastery, a perfect script with flawless pacing, and excellent performances from the entire cast make Portrait of a Lady on Fire absolutely unmissable. The film is best watched on the big screen, and you’ll be able to do so soon, as it will be out in the U.S. on December 6.