Céline Sciamma's slow-burn French romance, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," is a must-see for Pride Month. Set in the late 1700s, Sciamma's historical drama is beautifully shot and wonderfully acted. It's also, perhaps, one of the most honest depictions of lesbian romance seen on screen, especially in a major movie. While not nearly as heartbreaking as "Brokeback Mountain," "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" -- based on an original script -- finds two women in a love that's deep and pure, but one they can't carry on due to the conventions of the time.
"Portrait of a Lady on Fire" transports us to an island off the coast of Brittany, France in the late Eighteenth Century. It's becoming a time of revolution on both sides of the Atlantic. But politics is not important, nor is it even the focus. Still, revolution is in the air, as young Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) is set to marry a nobleman she never met. Marriage holds no interest to her, but her Countess mother (Valeria Golino) doesn't care. So, Héloïse's way of revolting? Refusing to sit for a portrait -- a wedding gift from her family to the fiancé who is waiting in Milan.
This is where painter Marianne comes into the picture. But she isn't the first painter to answer the call. There have been others, mostly men, who tried and failed to get Héloïse to pose for a portrait. To avoid another failure, the Countess asks Marianne to paint Héloïse without her knowing, from memory.
As Marianne settles in, she meets Héloïse -- a faceless entity at the start, who she finally is able to put a face on. Marianne acts as a companion during the day, walking and spending time with Héloïse. At night, she paints from her mind. As the two take daily strolls, Marianne learns more about the mysterious lady. Héloïse is deeply affected by the suicide of her older sister and this is the main reason why she does not want to marry. She prefers a solitary life in a convent. Of course, this is where a more conventional love story could start to take shape. But, this love story is anything but conventional.
Unaware of her own deep feelings, Marianne continues to study Héloïse. How her ear touches her face; the way she folds her hands; how she carries herself while hiding deep emotions. Moreover, Marianne notices that Héloïse never smiles. Of course, there's an easy cure for that, as housemaid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) points out: be funny.
All the above informs Marianne as she begins her portrait. There are conventions in portrait painting though. Even though Héloïse rarely smiles, Marianne paints a grin anyway. It's not Héloïse's true self, and Marianne knows it. On the last day of her commissioned time, Marianne reveals to Héloïse her true purpose and shows Héloïse her portrait. It's no wonder why Héloïse detests it. Marianne destroys it before the Countess can see it.
Héloïse, however, understands why Marianne had to destroy it. It wasn't true to herself, just as much as it wasn't for Marianne. As the Countess disembarks for Milan, Héloïse in turn decides to pose for Marianne. And, with Marianne granted a second chance, the two ladies spend a week getting to know each other more and more. They both open up in ways they never would have imagined and fall in love. And, it's a feeling the two cannot hide, even if societal conventions dictate that they must.
Pride Month Connections
"Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is a perfect selection for Pride Month, as it's a film that finally adequately showcases romance from a female point of view. As such, the film is subversive in many ways, and in ways that's important for female and lesbian representation in cinema.
For starters, as pointed out by Hannah Giorgis of The Atlantic, the movie completely upends the conventions of an artist-muse relationship. Largely depicted as an alluring female, the muse's role to the artist is to simply exist. Her beauty and grace alone will inspire the art. But since that's her singular purpose, the artist -- and the audience, by extension -- need not know more. Héloïse takes on the role of the muse, but she's very much aware. Just as much as Marianne keenly observes and knows the little idiosyncrasies of Héloïse, so too does Héloïse of Marianne. "If you look at me," Héloïse poses to Marianne, "who do I look at?"
Sciamma's historical romance also has a lot of honesty, even if it begins with ulterior motives. The most honest element being the true representation of the female gaze. For years, movies predominantly focused on the male gaze. You know the scene. As the guy stares across the room, in walks the girl. The camera then shifts to his point of view. The music swells -- let's say to Spandau Ballet's "True" -- and the girl is suddenly his object of affection. She's unrealistically beautiful; her hair blowing from unseen winds. Yeah, this was all over the teen films and rom-coms from the '80s, '90s, and early '00s.
"Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is the first of its kind to showcase the gaze from woman to woman. Intimacy here is not just in the kiss they ultimately share, but in the looks they give, and their observations about each other. As Róisín Tapponi points out in her piece on the subject for the Guardian, in many mainstream movies, "lesbian intimacy is about touching; Sciamma, however, draws attention to how the women in the film look at each other, and the viewer is made aware of the complexity of lesbian intimacy and how sensuality is located far deeper."
This is a perspective that seems lost in Hollywood, which is why representation matters. As we get more perspectives in mainstream films, only then will we see the full portrait of romance.
Why You Should See It
"Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is a remarkable film. From Sciamma's direction to Claire Mathon's cinematography, each scene is a painting unto itself. In spite of this, unlike most period dramas, the performances stay understated, helping the film feel real, honest, and pure.
"Portrait of a Lady on Fire" debuted in competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. While the film didn't claim the top prize, the Palme d'Or, it did land the Queer Palm, becoming the first female-directed film to win that award. Sciamma also won for her screenplay.
Critics raved about the historical drama all throughout the 2019 awards season. As such, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" received Best Foreign Language Film nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards, Critics' Choice Awards, and the Golden Globes. The film landed on many film critics' "Best Of" lists as well and was chosen as one of five best foreign-language films by the National Board of Review. Unfortunately, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" couldn't match the reception of another fantastic foreign film (also distributed domestically by Neon) capturing everyone's attention that year, "Parasite."
Did You Know
All the paintings and sketches done in the film were by French artist Hélène Delmaire. After discovering her work on Instagram, Sciamma approached Delmaire to paint original works for the film. Delmaire ended up painting for 16 hours a day during the course of the shoot. Moreover, whenever the camera shows Marianne's hand painting and drawing, it's actually that of Delmaire's. Actress Noémie Merlant and Delmaire worked closely with each other to maintain the correct perspective and sightlines. But there was one hardship they had to overcome. Delmaire is right-handed, while Merlant is a lefty.
December 6, 2019
Matt Lissauer is a writer & data manager for Noovie. When he is not busy writing listicles, Matt is enjoying life in New Jersey with his lovely wife and three kids.