Valentine’s Day is traditionally where quality movie releases go to die: the focus instead seems to be on shiny but predictable rom-coms, tepid tearjerkers, and whatnot. So, can we all put our hands together and applaud the fact that this Valentine’s Day the cinematic gods (or NEON) decided to smile upon us and gift us with a release of not only one of the best romantic movies you may see this year, but one of the best movies you may see this decade? I realize this is a bold statement since, well, the decade has only begun, but I’m willing to go there. We have a masterpiece on our hands here.
All hail Portrait of Lady On Fire, the movie savior of this Valentine’s Day weekend, and a thoroughly modern, sex positive, feminist, queer film that happens to be set in the eighteenth century on an isolated island in France. A story about women, written and directed by a woman, with an almost entirely female cast (a couple of inconsequential, helping male hands aside). It is breathtakingly beautiful, devastating, and exquisitely realized in every way.
The story (framed as a flashback) follows Marianne (Noémie Merlant), the daughter of a well known artist and a young woman determined to make a mark in the art world. She arrives to said remote island to take on a precarious portrait assignment. Her subject is Heloise (Adèle Haenel), a sheltered but spirited aristocrat, waiting to be married off to a man she’s never met. This man awaits her portrait before making his marriage contract final. Heloise, who finds herself in this situation because her older sister killed herself, and the family has to provide a new bride, has refused to sit for any portraits, clinging onto the final days of her freedom with a fierceness that is almost breathtaking. She shields her face from the painters (and the film’s camera, at first) like she shields her heart. Marianne, as such, is supposed to not let her true intentions be shown, but pose as her companion and sketch her in secret.
It takes the movie a good twenty or so minutes to show Marianne (and us) Heloise’s face and the tension this decision creates is palpable. Once her defiant, gorgeous features sweep across the screen, we all know there’s no turning back.
Their walks, framed by romantic vistas and sweeping splashes of the sea around them (the cinematography is BREATHTAKING, recalling Campion and Bergman, with splashes of Cameron grandeur) awaken something in both of them. Is it camaraderie? Compassion? Passion? Either way, it is something that one quickly senses will not be able to be contained by corsets and convention. The walks are almost a small movie in and of themselves, a French queer Wuthering Heights gothic romance, but bright eyed and refreshingly devoid of melodramatic.
Before they both spontaneously combust before our very eyes, right on queue, Heloise’s mother (and their only supervisor) leaves for a trip. The women are left with only one task: to spend time with each other and to finish this painting, in a way that will be satisfactory to the male gaze. Before you know it, faced with choices they never dared think they’d have, passion and art bloom out of every frame of the film. It is amplified by the fact that everyone involved knows that this is their reality for just a short period of time. As the portrait approaches its completion, so does their story.
There are layers to it all, though, showing the complexity of female relationships on all levels. On the outskirts of their love story, Marianne and Heloise, alongside a servant girl Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), together create a lovely, collaborative living space space where women are truly there for one another. They play cards, cook, and share meals. They take walks, discuss the myths of Orpheus and Eurydice, and help each other along the way. And, unlike some recent forays into feminist cinema, the trials and tribulations they all face over their week of freedom never feel overt or performative.
And that is where the movie really finds its legs and value: in how elegantly it approaches its relationships, letting them just be what they are in that particular moment.
The patriarchy is never seen, or even properly discussed in the film, but its presence being inevitable, like death. We ALL know that there is only one way this story will end, but instead of dwelling on it, filmmaker Celine Sciamma focuses on how beautiful freedom and love and friendship are, even if they have a time limit.
Or maybe because they have a time limit.