I love lesbian romance movies. Please, hear me out before you think I’m a total sleaze. As a gay man, there’s no “entry point” for me in queer love stories involving two women. I am taken out of contention to truly place myself in the position of either party in the love story. I do not know what it means to be a woman, nor do I know what it means to love a woman. This leaves only one point of contention to make the film engaging: it has to be good. When it comes to queer love stories in film, regardless of gender (if gender is even involved at all), there’s an eloquence that has to be spoken not only in words and actions but in an understanding of the intimacy and societal rebellion that comes in the sheer act of being queer. That’s not to say that all people who make films about queer people and/or their love affairs have to be queer to tell authentic, moving stories (ex. Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight), but it certainly doesn’t hurt, does it?
Yet, it feels even truer when it comes to love stories involving queer women. Throughout history, queerness in women has been fetishized for the male gaze in all forms of media, from the most innocent of children’s media to the darkest, nastiest pornography imaginable. Even my favorite romance film of the modern age, Blue is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2), has been rightly criticized for its excessively long and graphic sex scene which feels more exploitative than intimate. It’s a scene that brings the moving emotion of the film to a screeching halt for 4% of its already extended three-hour runtime. It’s a sobering reminder that the film is directed by a man who views sex between two women through a fetishized male gaze. Even when I revisit the film, I find myself skipping the scene, as it takes me too much out of the intensely emotional story at hand that is handled so perfectly otherwise.
Enter Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu), a queer female love story crafted from the inside out by a queer woman, Céline Sciamma.
Set in the late 18th century on a remote island off the coast of Brittany in France, Portrait of a Lady on Fire follows Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young painter tasked with painting a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a wealthy young woman poised to be married to a man in Milan, should he find her portrait pleasing. The previous painter found painting Héloïse to be impossible due to her resistance to posing, protesting her potential arranged marriage. Marianne is tasked by Héloïse’s mother to paint her without her knowing, picking up on her features and mannerisms under the guise of being a companion for walks following her sister’s suicide to paint a picture by memory. While their relationship begins tense, Marianne and Héloïse soon begin to discover, in the solitude of the island, that they are the only ones that have ever understood each other on the level of love that Héloïse is resisting being forced into. And thus, an impermissible love affair begins.
Put frankly, there has not been a film like Portrait of a Lady on Fire this year so far, and I do not believe that there will be another like it for a very long time. This is a film so entrenched in sensual bliss that it’s hard not to immediately be swept up in its beautiful glory. The beauty of Portrait of a Lady on Fire comes in its restraint in telling the tale of love, not just in the film’s sexual content (or lack thereof, really), but in how the film takes its time to build the relationship between Marianne and Héloïse. This isn’t some haphazardly crafted love story that begins with love at first sight, but is a film that details the reality of the build-up and breakdown of what love actually is beyond the surface level. Marianne and Héloïse aren’t experiencing a fling or a phase, but rather a mutual awakening of parts of their being yet untapped in their respectively sheltered lives. This awakening isn’t your typical “Wow, I can’t believe I’m queer!” type of awakening as is so often covered in queer romance films, but a much deeper, more heartfelt realization that a woman’s life can be her own in the same way a man’s can be.
In fact, Portrait of a Lady on Fire doesn’t seek to hash out the semantics of sexuality between the two leads. This is not a film that seeks to make a grand political statement on the nature of queerness in the 18th century, but is a film that simply works as a love story, bereft of societal constraints. This frees the film from being yet another queer film that could be classified as “trauma porn,” and opens it up to show that queer people were allowed to be happy at any point in time, even if the encroaching shadow of society still loomed over them quietly.
Regardless, Portrait of a Lady on Fire would be nothing without the dedication of its two leads, who both deliver quietly ravishing, yet entirely distinct performances. What’s so thrilling to watch between the two actresses is the melding of their characters into a single being during their love affair. Merlant’s performance as Marianne starts with timid professionalism that closes her off to any form of vulnerability. Haenel’s approach to Héloïse is what can only be described as “torturedly whimsical,” playing sometimes cruel games with Marianne’s naïveté, such as running full speed towards a cliff, mimicking her sister’s own demise to get her attention upon first meeting. Marianne’s serious streak and Héloïse’s playful rejection of the expectations of polite society soon begin to rub off on one another, creating a powerful mirror-like image that takes shape in perhaps one of the most stunning final shots of any movie this year.
It’s obvious from the start that Portrait of a Lady on Fire is going to be an objectively beautiful film from the setting alone, a secluded isle off the coast of France. The film itself could take place during any age and still make sense in context, but here, there’s a brightness and cleanness about the film that rejects any sort of notion of filth that often seems to pervade period films. There’s an exquisite bareness to the way that Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon shoot the film. We aren’t inundated with grand baroque structures displaying immense wealth, but are treated to a neutral manor bathed in immense sunlight. Portrait of a Lady on Fire doesn’t have to be flashy to immerse you, as the story already does that. What it does is take the reality of the world around the characters and paints it with a beautiful sense of light and depth that lacks the pretense of prestige period pieces.
The film also lacks a musical score, leaning solely on the sounds of the waves crashing on the shore, the wind blowing amongst the trees, the creaking of an old house at night, and the bated breaths of two people in love. Interestingly, unlike other films lacking a musical score à la mother! or The Birds, I did not notice the lack of music until the single scene involving diegetic music, a stunningly angelic piece sung around a campfire by the women of the island. This brings attention to the sound in such a jarring, arresting manner that, should it not garner a nomination, let alone a win, for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards next year, I shall finally know that the awards are rigged (just kidding…kind of).
Simply put, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is hands down the best film that I had the privilege of seeing at Film Fest 919 this year, or perhaps any film this year period. This is a gobsmacking piece of cinema that steamrolls through your heart at an agonizing pace. Every aspect of this film, from the first frame to the final title card, is adeptly formed from Sciamma, Merlant, and Haenel. It’s a film that speaks true to the queer experience in a way that is still accessible for non-queer audiences to be swept away in, as well. This is a film that adapts the human experience of love through the lenses of visual art and the power the craft can hold over people. The film also speaks to the unique experience of femininity during a time of repression and silencing of women, utilizing the voices and presence of women almost exclusively during its runtime. This is not a film to be taken lightly, nor is it a film that drags you down and knocks you out to prove a point about the nature of queer emotion within society. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a paradox of a film that explores human tenderness and quiet sensuality in a way that I’m not sure I’ve felt before on screen. It’s a sensory experience of romantic fervor that is unforgettable in every single possible way.
In select theaters beginning December 6th, 2019.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.