The last movie I got to see in theaters before the world came to a screeching halt was Portrait of a Lady on Fire and, while the past few weeks have been less than inspiring, its recent debut on Hulu reminded me of just how outstanding it is.
Set on a secluded island off the coast of France at the end of the 18th century, an aspiring painter is tasked with creating a portrait of a young bride without her knowing. As the wedding approaches, the two young women become intertwined in a precarious personal relationship.
It’s easy to see why this film was a festival darling at Cannes, taking home Best Screenplay, the Queer Palm, and even a nomination for the festival’s highest honor, the Palme d’Or. Céline Sciamma’s is masterfully rooted in the strengths of her screenplay and the performances of her two lead actors, Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel. The richness of the character design just pours out of the screen and the portrayals are driven home with beautiful subtlety and remarkable passion. Merlant and Haenel are incredible together and their energy with one another is simply infectious. Even the supporting character of Sophie, played by Luàna Bajrami, folds into this tale wonderfully as a sister figure.
The location filming for this shoot must have been a blast and the cinematography by Claire Mathon really captured the feeling of the sleepy French countryside. Château de La Chapelle-Gauthier embodies the 18th-century aristocracy serving as the foundation for this particular story and it feeds into the stellar costume design by Dorothée Guiraud. The beaches of Saint-Pierre-Quiberon paint an imposing picture of isolation and that theme plays an important narrative function in this film.
It’s extremely disappointing and it does this film a major disservice to see the plot keywords that made the IMDB landing page, “lesbian kiss, female nudity, lesbian relationship, female nudity, and bare breasts”, are more in line with a site like Mr. Skin. Yes, this is a story of a same-sex relationship that blossoms out of a very secretive but intimate circumstance but it’s not crass. Ultimately, it’s a story about love in the face of expectations and societal pressures.
Whether or not the awards season shows go on as planned in 2020 remains to be seen but when and if it does, much like its predecessors Roma (2018) and Parasite (2019), you can expect Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be a serious contender for Best International Feature, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture. It wouldn’t be a stretch to see Merlant and Haenel snag nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting either.
Recommendation: Definitely check this one out. With so many releases being pushed back or shelved completely, this is easily the best movie of the year right now and thanks to Hulu, you don’t have to track it down.