Unsurprisingly, no women were nominated at the Oscars in the Best Director category this year. And it’s important to state for those who didn’t keep up with their film watching last year that this isn’t due to female directors not trying hard enough, as optimistic/ignorant commentators on awards season often like to argue. Greta Gerwig crafted a loving and compelling adaptation of one of the most beloved novels of all time; Lorene Scafaria made a slick crime thriller from the unique perspective of characters usually relegated to being set dressing; Olivia Wilde, in her directorial debut, wrote and directed one of the funniest, easy to watch films of the year. And despite their brilliance, all of them (in my opinion) pale in comparison to Celine Sciamma’s near-perfect period romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
We begin in a painting class full of girls nervously composing identical images, lead by a stern young woman named Marianne. Despite the gentle authority that characterizes her, she softens when one of her students asks about a creation that lingers in the backdrop of the room – she replies that this is the eponymous portrait, and the romance begins as Sciamma thrusts us onto a boat in the crashing ocean with Marianne, on her way to the defining moments of her life. This opening is flawless, as is the romance that follows it; commissioned to paint a portrait of a reluctant woman named Heloise for her soon to be husband in Milan, the two find comfort in wordless glances and an unspoken understanding, brought to a peak on the beach where they first met. While I won’t spoil any more specific scenes, I feel as though you’ll know how this ends – what matters is the time they spend together, and the eternity of representation they find in the portrait that both captures and frees Heloise.
Without a doubt, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the most visually captivating film to be released in 2019 (February 28th, 2020, for those of you in the UK). Claire Mathon’s cinematography is as painterly as one of Marianne’s works of art, and the minimalistic 18th-century landscape provides a beautifully cold setting to be warmed by the love of the central pair. The recurring motif of different types of portrait – rendered in oils, glass, and memories – cleverly charts how each character perceives the other, and manages to convey story information in a way that is always both subtle and visually absorbing. When I discovered that Sciamma and Adele Haenel who plays Heloise were a couple, a wasn’t too shocked – the way that Haenel is framed in this film feels almost like a gateway into Sciamma’s gaze, and you wind up believing that she might just be the most incredible human in the world by the end of it.
As revealed by its incredible popularity among sapphic women on Twitter, this honest and natural depiction of a lesbian relationship also makes Portrait stand out as unique against other period romances. Heloise’s fiance is never seen, and he absolutely doesn’t need to be – this is a story of two women finding love with one another, and while the social laws of the time inevitably provide a barrier, this isn’t only a story about oppression and misery. Haenel and Noemie Merlant’s chemistry is absolutely irrepressible, and the two make one of the most sincere and compelling onscreen couples since Rick and Ilsa. Other films are designed to showcase struggle and political warfare – while that is undeniably present in Sciamma’s film, the unabashed love that permeates every second the two are onscreen together seems far more revolutionary to me.
Please, please watch this film at your local cinema when it comes out if you haven’t had the chance already. In lieu of popular prestige awards, this film has gotten to where it is through enthusiastic word of mouth, and I’m more than happy to carry this over into 2020. Be amazed by the sumptuous visuals and impeccable narrative structure, but most importantly, envelop yourself in the love that these characters share, and spread the word as I just have.