Scene one, hot take one: Lost love and lost Oscars — A review of ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

A painting of a blonde girl in a green dress with a black brush stroke across her face.
(Waverly Wang • The Student Life)

Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” made history at the 92nd Academy Awards by being the first foreign-language film to take home the Oscar for Best Picture.

As great a moment as this was, there is still a disturbing lack of attention paid to global cinema in the United States. Only 12 foreign-language films have been released in more than 1,000 theaters in the country, and the $44.5 million box office earnings “Parasite” made in the United States is only a meager 5.2 percent of the $858 million that “Avengers: Endgame,” the highest-grossing film of 2019, made domestically. 

This sprawling lack of American attention to foreign cinema is only further reflected in the lack of viewership and acclaim for Céline Sciamma’s masterful “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”

In fact, due to outdated and frankly asinine rules that each non-English speaking country is only allowed one submission for the “Best International Feature Film” at the Academy Awards, “Portrait of Lady on Fire” was not even submitted to compete in the category and thus shut out of one of the most important annual cinematic events. With growing global film industries in non-English speaking nations, the rule has simply become a dinosaur that restricts global cinema’s rise. 

This glaring snub from the Oscars led to a scenario where very few Americans were able to see the film last year, since it received an extremely limited release stateside, available initially only in New York City and Los Angeles. However, on Valentine’s Day, the film finally hit a semi-significant amount of American theaters, where it was hopefully seen by more people. However, even with this expanded amount of theaters, those not in big cities will have to wait even longer to see the film, or even resort to the leaks that have surfaced online.

The film follows the forbidden romance of a professional portrait painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and her subject and muse, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in late eighteenth-century France. While the premise may sound like a traditional period piece or costume drama, the film’s unique voice is found in the film’s execution and Sciamma’s style.

The most immediately recognizable aspect of the film is its look. The film’s interiors were shot in a castle, using exclusively natural lighting (sun, fire and candles), an intensely difficult process that pays off immensely in giving the film’s interior scenes a sense of intimacy that mirrors the desire of its characters. With dozens of muted scenes of the protagonists silently walking, sitting or painting, the modest lighting makes us feel as if we’re right there with them. 

In contrast, the natural lighting makes the film’s exterior scenes, shot on a gorgeous island off the Brittany coast, feel like a sweeping, romantic painting — almost like a painting created by Marianne herself. The honesty mingles with natural beauty, creating an aesthetic that effectively separates it from the tired genre of costume drama-romance. 

The true beauty of the film, though, comes from the way Sciamma writes and directs the romance between her two leads. Each interaction between Marianne and Héloïse is intensified by long silences and long close-up shots that clearly communicate mutual yearning — Sciamma makes sure we are not taken by surprise when the two finally share a kiss.

This sense of desire gives the film a perfect feeling of first love — a first love made unique through Sciamma’s directorial voice, yet intrinsically relatable to anyone in the audience. The relatability of the film’s desire stems from the relative universality of the romance. The chemistry between the two leads further anchors the film’s desire in a sense of reality that immediately sucks viewers in.

Without spoiling too much, this high of first love is unfortunately ephemeral and sets the stage for the film’s gut-punch of an ending. It seamlessly and achingly portrays the complexity of first love’s heartbreak, leaving us, as well as the characters, at a loss for words. The ending embodies the global melancholy of heartbreak, making it arguably the best single scene of 2019. 

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is the most criminally unseen film of 2019. It’s a story that feels at once deeply unique and instantly relatable, no matter what language you enter the theater knowing. It does what all great films do — makes the viewer recall and relate their own experiences to that of the characters in the film. I hope that people will adhere to the advice of the great Bong Joon-ho and overcome the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” to experience the beauty of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and global cinema as a whole. 

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”: 4/5 stars 

Ben Hafetz PZ ’20 is one of TSL’s film columnists. He is a media studies and politics double major who likes to not only see movies, but also tell his friends why they should or should not like certain ones.

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