Let’s watch a masterpiece.


Portrait of a Lady on Fire is technically a 2019 film, but it was limited release (overseas), so I am counting it as a 2020 film.

Also, it’s probably the best film of the year.

Some minor spoilers.

We follow Marianne (Noemie Merlant), who has been commissioned to paint of portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel) without Heloise knowing it. Heloise is slated to marry a wealthy man from Milan but rejects this notion of entrapment. Her elder sister likely killed herself to escape this same fate. Refusing to pose, she has driven another artist away, so Marianne has her work cut out for her.

What follows is a love story that captures such a timely and poetic essence that it is hard to put into words. This film is at once a masterpiece of academic ideation and thought-provoking, while also capturing the emotive aspects of love perhaps better than any movie I have seen. Every scene is packed with ideas, beauty, and thoughtfulness.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the film is our two leads. Adele Haenel is one of the most expressive actresses—able to convey complex emotions with only a look. The entire story could be told by her eyes alone. This is not to say Noemie Merlant is not also excellent, and we are equally held by her gaze.

I am certain my fellow film-studies scholars are ready to write about the role of the feminine gaze in this film, and there is certainly a lot to unpack there. Further, there are almost no men present in the film, but the patriarchal social constraints linger just outside of view like an oppressive monster ready to strike. We know how this story will end, but there is such beauty in watching the tragic unfold. This review is going to focus more on the cinematic enjoyment of the story, rather than the academic wellspring.

The characters drive the narrative. It is nice to see a movie where both of the romantic interests are real people, and one of them doesn’t start off as a jerk who has to be reformed. Here, we have two individuals who are obviously shaped by the world around them, and both have been entrapped in different ways. How each of them deals with their invisible prisons is in part what makes them attracted to each other, and so different. Marianne is more upfront with her rebellion. She paints what she shouldn’t, smokes, travels, and has a worldly air to her. Heloise’s rebellion is slower, and more hopeless (sadly) as she can only delay the inevitable for so long.

The implications of the narrative are heartbreaking as these two experience a sexual awakening while also recognizing that the love they feel for one another cannot be replicated. When they are together, there is no uneven power dynamic—something that will not happen when Heloise weds and something Marianne won’t be able to achieve due to social constraints and prejudices.

Here we have a story of a forbidden love that shouldn’t have ever been forbidden. I highly recommend this one and can’t believe (actually I can totally believe) that the Oscars ignored this one.

A must watch for 2020.

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