There’s a moment early in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of A Lady on Fire that hits like a ton of feathers, but only in retrospect. It’s one of the first scenes where Noémie Merlant’s Marianne poses for a group of students she’s teaching how to sketch portraits. As the young girls scramble to capture her image, she cautions them: “Take time to look at me.”
At first pass, the line is seemingly inconsequential, just a directive thrown at pupils from their instructor. But after an absorbing and enthralling two hours, it’s an aspirational and necessary mood that makes its importance known in the most tender of ways.
Portrait of A Lady on Fire, which had its Canadian premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday and won best screenplay and the coveted Queer Palm at Cannes earlier this year, is a lesbian period romance drama set in 18th-century Brittany, France. Subtitled in English, it follows Marianne, an artist hired by an Italian noblewoman to paint a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who has been committed to marry a man she’s never met. The gig, however, is complicated, as Marianne must accomplish this feat without Héloïse sitting for the portrait, as the would-be bride protests the arranged marriage; Héloïse is under the impression that Marianne has been hired to escort her on walks. What unfolds is an instantly canonical love story for the ages, and I don’t make such a claim lightly.
The problem with so many queer onscreen romances — even those we’ve come to love — is that after awhile, you can tell an LGBTQ+ person had nothing to do with the story. And if someone did, the straight, cis director’s perspective won out. The lack of authenticity shows at the seams and in the details, like in the ways queer people navigate intimacy or during sex scenes. But with Sciamma’s queer gaze at the helm as writer and director, Marianne and Héloïse’s love soars into a space of blissful familiarity.
To that end, what we have to feast on is something so soft and supple, tender, and intentional. From the gorgeous subtleties and prying glances of new desire to the visible, yet still very internalized moments of self-discovery and emotional angst, Portrait of A Lady on Fire is a perfect film made all the better by powerful lead performances by Merlant and Haenel. Buoyed by Claire Mathon’s exquisite cinematography, the film gives queer love the cinematic gravitas and respect it deserves but is seldom given.
Beyond the love story, this film is a manifesto: It’s a declaration of visibility, a demand to be seen and felt. When Marianne tells her students, “Take time to look at me,” she is defining the gaze as both a skill to be harnessed and a refusal to allow oneself to be rendered inauthentically. It’s a manual of sorts for claiming space, suggesting the power and freedom one can achieve on the other side of sacrifice.
I want to see this movie, hitting U.S. theaters in Dec., nominated for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars next year. Portrait of A Lady on Fire deserves that, and this film is what queer people deserve.