LGBTQ people have been around since the beginning of time, natural subjects for period pieces. The biggest obstacle is the historical discrimination shown toward our community, limiting the types of narratives that can be told. “Happily ever after” isn’t a concept that gay people got to enjoy until fairly recently. The new French film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes on lesbian love at the end of the eighteenth century, a tall order that writer and director Céline Sciamma tackles with ease.
Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a young painter commissioned to craft a portrait in secret on an island in Brittany. Her subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), resists her mother’s efforts to get her to pose, as she does not want to be married off. Marianne is tasked with spending time with Héloïse to learn her features well enough to paint without her subject’s consent.
Sciamma’s greatest strength as a director is her ability to capture powerful quiet moments between her two stars. Appropriately, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a slow burn. The film has a very small cast and not a whole lot happens over the course of its two-hour runtime. The pacing works very well, as Sciamma crafts her scenes in a way that constantly leaves you wanting more.
Merlant and Haenal are spectacular. The narrative unfolds over about two week’s time, the kind of stretch ripe for the passion of summer flings. The two present a compelling romance that unfolds fairly naturally, pressed up against the confines of reality. Love thrives in the vacuum of brevity.
Sciamma is superb at crafting scenes that speak volumes without dialogue. There are plenty of dreamy sequences that play around with consciousness. The spooky setting of the island manor also lends itself well to this dynamic. It’s the perfect environment for a passionate fling that fills the mind with love and longing.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire perfectly demonstrates how to depict gay love in a period setting without caving to broader societal expectations. Heartbreak is natural in a world that denied the validity of LGBTQ romance for so long, but we also live in a modern environment that’s grown tired of narratives that bask in gay pain. Too many films have relished in the drama of inevitable breakups. The time is right for a different kind of story.
In many ways, LGBTQ narratives aren’t exactly made for members of our own community. Many are made from the perspective of heterosexual cisgender men, or designed to appeal to an audience who doesn’t know what it’s like to love someone you’re not supposed to be with. The realities of these situations are rarely as dramatic as cinema makes them out to be.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire understands the realities of forbidden love. Moments come, and then they leave. What’s left is the sense of fulfillment brought about by the experience of having felt that burning passion. Love is love, even when it’s not allowed to last forever. Few things ever do.