Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a perfect tale of queer romance and yearning

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a perfect tale of queer romance and yearning

February 21, 2020

Portrait of Lady of Fire is a heady, emotional story that strikes true on the nature of queer desire. Set in late 18th-century France, it’s just as careful a tableau as its namesake: a painting of one of the film’s two leads, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), with flames skirting the edges of her dress, crafted from Marianne’s (Noémie Merlant) meticulous brushstrokes. Eschewing a focus on forbidden love in favor of grounded romance, it’s the latest film from renowned French director Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies, Girlhood). It picked up the award for best screenplay at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where it also won the Queer Palm, in addition to a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. (It happens to be a GLAAD Media Award nominee as well!) It also is required viewing for lovers of queer cinema.

The premise of the film is relatively simple: Marianne is commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse, a young aristocrat recently departed from the convent who is to be married to a Milanese nobleman. The portrait is a precursor to the marriage itself in order to show off Héloïse’s beauty to her future husband. But Héloïse doesn’t want to be married off and refuses to pose for any painter. In a scheme of deception planned by Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino), Marianne poses as Héloïse’s walking mate, accompanying her on promenades near the cliffside and stealing glances as fodder with which to work on the painting in secret in her chambers. 

However, the love story is told in retrospect, with the first sequence depicting Marianne teaching an art course, with the titular painting of Héloïse tucked away in the back of her classroom. It’s clear from the moment a student inquires about its nature that Marianne has been permanently marked by their relationship, even though all she apparently has left is one painting. The sequence frames the film in a non-negotiable perspective: no matter what happens over the course of the following two hours, Marianne and Héloïse’s story does not miraculously end with them together. Instead of bogging the film down, the realization is freeing, allowing Sciamma to focus on the intricacies of the relationship in the moment and to tell an intoxicating love story. 


That attention to detail is what makes Portrait such riveting queer cinema. Quiet touches, soft nudity, and an almost gravitational sense of physical attachment help to establish a gaze that’s empathetic rather than leering. Other films, perhaps most notably in recent memory Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color from 2013, have come under fire for depicting queer intimacy in a way that feels clinical or voyeuristic, irrevocably tinged by the male gaze. With cinematographer Claire Mathon at the helm and Sciamma directing, Portrait’s gaze is unmistakably female, oscillating between Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie, a servant at the estate whose presence helps establish a strong sense of sorority between the three women. 

Of course, given Sciamma’s track record, that kind of nuance is to be expected. The director made her debut with the 2007 film Water Lilies (which also stars Portrait actress Haenel, alongside Pauline Acquart), which tells the story of two adolescent girls navigating nascent feelings of sexual attraction while exploring their own identities. Sciamma went on to direct two additional coming-of-age films, Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014). Portrait of a Lady on Fire, in a way, feels like the culmination of that coming-of-age trilogy, casting aside the uncertainty and guessing work of adolescence in favor of self-assured passion.

Ultimately, there’s no wavering in Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship. It’s clear from their early interactions that there’s a kind of tension between the two, built not of voyeuristic elements but rather the sheer power of observing and being seen in turn. As is the case in many of Sciamma’s films, dialogue is sparse; a barely-there musical score makes every uttered line feel that much more weighty and impactful. What’s most powerful, however, is the fact that there’s no doubt about what Marianne and Héloïse feel for each other, or the sense of an uncertain conclusion — like all star-crossed lovers, they are inevitably pulled apart by forces greater than themselves. 

Despite that, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is filled with yearning and beautiful physicality that makes Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship feel riveting and real. Much like the burning gazes that connect the film’s dots, it’s a tale of queer intimacy that’s impossible to look away from.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently playing in theaters.

Palmer Haasch is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador Alum and writer. She served as an Entertainment Media Intern at GLAAD as a Lead Junior Editor for GLAAD's digital platform, Amp. She is a graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in English and Political Science.

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