The following contains mild spoilers for Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, but the film is all about the journey and not the destination.
One film released last year created such a stir that it actually instigated protests during an awards ceremony. Normally, a protest signifies disapproval or a need for mass change, but this was a protest deeply in support of this one particular film. It had been almost entirely snubbed from the Cesar Awards, which can be seen as the French equivalent to the Oscars. Not only had it been almost entirely snubbed, but the film that ultimately beat it in almost every category was An Officer and A Spy. This was the latest film from Polish director Roman Polanski, most infamously known for drugging and raping an underage girl in 1978, yet having gone on to have a celebrated career despite having to flee the U.S. as a result. That the Cesars would intentionally elevate a child molester over one of the most powerful films in recent memory, by a queer filmmaker no less, was seen as a personal affront by many, most of all to the creators of the film itself:
That’s one of the film’s leads, Adéle Haenel and writer/director Celine Sciamma walking out of the awards as Polanski’s name is called. Around the same time is when the protests kicked off:
It was a singularly furious moment, watching the entire French film industry fall into lockstep to defend a convicted pedophile. Such controversies are to be expected in the post-#MeToo world (as damn well they should), but it made Celine Sciamma’s film into an unlikely underdog against a biopic that itself had gotten mostly mediocre reviews and was only being rewarded to spite the sudden changes the film industry needed.
That this happened less than a month before the lockdowns over the pandemic began reveals a very different world, one where protests were more or less celebrated outside of industry circles, where there was a very clear villain and a very clear hero of this story. Even as industry veterans viciously mocked Haenel and Sciamma on social media for this, many of them absolutely furious that a queer love story was even in consideration, a lot more support was thrown at them. As much as the film industry can often celebrate artifice and decorum, this felt like one of the very few rare genuinely human moments you see at otherwise stodgy awards shows.
Now, I don’t want to pretend that that’s all there is to this, because that would be the biggest understatement of the century. But I think that context is incredibly crucial when it comes to understanding this film, and the deft touch it takes in depicting a sort of passionate love we often don’t see depicted in cinema. It is unique, certainly, because it is one of the very few queer love stories to gain any sort of critical praise or success in recent years (as much as we claim representation has improved, it barely has), it also doesn’t fit neatly into realms of pure tragedy or a purely happy ending the way that the vast majority of love stories slot neatly into.
And that’s not to say that’s a bad thing! This is hardly a knock at historical romances or romantic comedies or anything else that involves two (or sometimes more) people falling for each other. The tropes work because they do, because they tap into those really primal parts in ourselves, the parts that yearn and desire to feel more. Those things aren’t shameful, so long as it’s respecting the autonomy of characters and performers.
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is both very traditionally a love story and very much not, it loves what came before as much as it quietly criticizes some of which came before, and it very much dwells in the space of what exactly constitutes love as we, an audience, might understand it.
The success of a love story is not about how long it lasts. It’s not about ending your life together. Him dying is tragic, but it’s not the end of the story. In equality, there is emancipation.
That’s a quote from Celine Sciamma herself in an interview she had with Vox. I’ll warn you in advance that it spoils the movie in full, but it’s well worth a read after you finish reading this (and hopefully decide to watch the movie itself on Hulu, which you very well should). It’s a fascinating take because it’s not something you think about. The way in which we perceive love has become so normalized that we very rarely question it outside of the model of a nuclear family. One man, one woman, two point five kids in a white picket fence, and the best marriages are measured by distance. The relationship between Adéle Haenel’s Héloïse and Noémie Merlant’s Marianne is doomed to fail from the very start, it’s not a spoiler to say that. The second they’re introduced to one another, working class painter forced to chase after an upper class aristocrat across the lush beach, you know for a fact that this is not going to last, not in the time that they’re alive, more than likely not today.
Normally, the trajectory of such a film laments that the relationship never had time to grow. The ending of a lot of love stories factors in its continued success or failure, again, by how long they last. To use an example from a much more popular film than this, Avengers: Endgame uses the length of Tony Stark and Pepper Potts’ relationship to highlight Stark’s growing maturity and contentment with a life outside of hedonistic abandon. They’re together for several years without any major conflicts, therefore the relationship must be going incredibly well. Even if it’s not realistic for any relationship to go on that long without any kind of conflict, even between two people communicating in emotionally healthy ways and being aware of each other’s needs, that’s still the platonic ideal by which the rest of us are measured.
That’s not to say that this makes Avengers: Endgame a bad movie on its own, or to say that this is the only film that does this. I say this as a person who overall enjoyed that film, but as the most financially successful film ever made, it does highlight that particular trope. Think of any film with a happy ending from a love story, and you see that relationship length prioritized. You think of how a lot of people factor in long-lasting marriages, even if those marriages are miserable, even if those people would be better off separated, and you can see how that ideal can poison the way we view love. The Marvel movie isn’t doing this to poison the well, it’s following the example that many other films have left as sort of a ur-trope to follow. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire subverts this, not necessarily out of spite, but more or less out of curiosity, to wonder why we view the notion of “true love” in this way.
Héloïse is an aristocrat’s daughter arranged to marry a man she never met. Her older sister was originally arranged to him, but she was so horrified by the notion that she committed suicide. Her social climber family retaliated by offering Héloïse up instead, and it’s also not a spoiler to say that we never even see what this man looks like or hear what he sounds like. He is nothing but an abstraction that hangs over the entire film. Marianne is hired to paint her portrait after Héloïse has scared off every other painter. Her potential husband is deciding on whether or not he wants to marry her based on how he perceives this single image of her, even as an image cannot fully define the multifaceted existence of any person. Her older sister must have had a portrait to his liking in order for him to arrange to marry her without them ever meeting, and it’s clear Héloïse has made this connection. Marianne doesn’t know any of this walking in, she’s but a painter seeking to become one of the greats, even having people pay for her paintings by using a male pseudonym. J.K. Rowling, in spite of her recent TERF meltdown, is sort of the best modern example of this, of course, her real first name being Joanne. Would boys have bought the Harry Potter books had they known she was a woman, so a lot of the discourse goes? The better question is, “would their fathers have let them buy the books in the first place if she was a woman?”
The film carefully but assuredly centers the film around the two of them even as it highlights over and over again how the models of love considered more traditional come from that patriarchal model. There are no men present for the majority of the film, to the point that when one finally appears near the end for what has become inevitable, it will catch you by surprise. I knew this walking in that it was going to happen and it still caught me completely by surprise when I saw a man there. I was so used to just pure feminine presence from feminine-presenting people that the sudden appearance of that unwashed and unkempt masculine feels like an intrusion, even into a home owned by a man who trades his daughter off like cattle.
Which is not to say that a non-toxic masculine can’t exist, mind, just that its presence here is very obviously not that.
Their initial relationship is a bit contentious: Since Héloïse will not sit for a portrait, Marianne must paint her from memory, in secret, in order to sell her off to her future husband. She’s forced to do so because of the money, and Héloïse won’t refuse Marianne’s presence because she’s been kept in total isolation for several months as punishment. There is an initial codependent need between them, complicated by their different socioeconomic statuses and their particular needs. And so Marianne is forced to gaze at her, quite intently, to render her as accurately as possible so her charge’s mother will pay her the small pitiful sum she needs to continue to survive. And as she inevitably falls for Héloïse and vice versa, this comes out in the perfectionist streak she shows in her paintings that she never had before, and in all the ways they get to know each other more intensely than anyone they have known or will ever know. The great dramatic irony is that it’s Marianne’s final painting of Héloïse, imbibed with all the love and devotion she’s developed for her, that is sent off to her future husband, reduced to a promotion for a person’s autonomy to be traded off without a care in the world.
This is how the film plays its hand, drawing you in slowly, often intentionally setting up payoffs in pure sight. Why is there a whole scene dedicated to learning an old Vivaldi concerto? Why are particular symbols and sights and sounds repeated over and over? Every shot in this film pays itself off in dividends, creating a visual mystery that will only be solved after the inevitable occurs and the film hits its truncated third act. It doesn’t help that it’s so absolutely gorgeous to behold, every single frame of this thing a painting in its own right, that even when you don’t initially understand what’ happening, it’ll be just enough to stare at the compositions and be totally awed by their totality and their color.
I don’t want to misrepresent this film: there is no huge twist, no M. Night Shyamalan style surprise that completely punctures the momentum. You will walk in and know how it ends almost immediately. It is not interested in hiding its ending from you. A forbidden love in a time only marginally more oppressive than now? It’s forbidden for a reason, even as most of the film’s cast figures it out almost as fast as we do. What the film is invested in is finding the complete and total subjectivity that getting to really know a person this deeply brings. If you’ve ever been in a truly passionate relationship, whether it be romantic or platonic or sexual or any combination of the above, it’s almost like you develop your own language with that other person. You have inside jokes and words with different meanings, gazes and touches and stares and intimacy that’s shared only between you. The specificity of their interactions is what ultimately sells it, and Adéle Haenel and Noémie Merlant’s go-for-broke performances, giving themselves completely over to it, sells it still further, both of them able to communicate so much silently that I think you could mute the film and still have no moment of confusion.
I’m being intentionally vague on a lot of this because it’s not enough to write it out for you what that specificity looks like. That’s like asking two people who love each other, in whatever ways you want to define that love, to explain exactly how it is that they know or express that love. That can sound overly sentimental for some (it makes me feel a little corny typing it out, but I don’t know how else to put it into words), but some of these things have to be seen rather than read. As a person writing about the film, and how much it touched me, and how much it reminded me of the specificity of what I’ve shared with people I’ve loved in the past, the people I love now and the people I hope to love in the future, it must be seen. This can only be a clarion call to experience it for yourself if you have a Hulu subscription. In a perfect world, all media would be free, but Celine Sciamma deserves to get more royalty checks so for once I’m encouraging capitalist consumption, as a treat.
There’s so much more to be said aside from what I’ve said, that many deeply talented people have covered already. I would highly recommend that if you haven’t seen this film yet, do so ASAP, and then begin reading up as much about it as you can. If you’ve already seen it and gotten some kind of value out of reading this, be sure to read articles by many others as well. It’s not my favorite of its respective year (Parasite edges it out ever so slightly in my mind but it’s entirely subjective), but I can’t lie and say that I wasn’t tearing up a bit after it was over. Not in the usual way one tears up, usually because you’re so devastated by the way a film winds itself to a close, but in how affecting this is, and how you’d rather have something briefer and more passionate like this than a long-smoldering relationship gradually going out. It’s very much about how to love non-traditionally, hidden in the places no one else can see it, a secret shared between two people. That kind of love can sustain you for the rest of your life even if it is denied to you by forces outside of your control, like you’re being set on fire and smoldering like hot coals that last a lifetime.