Sometimes you just want to enjoy an artsy French film about love and tragedy. And sometimes “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is streaming on Hulu and is ripe for enjoyment.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was barely released in U.S. theaters before the fall of cinema as we know it. The movie is a powerfully tragic romance between two women who want nothing more than to love, but are constrained by what is expected of them. Slow to start, but still very charming, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” builds to a powerful pay-off.
The movie is also in French, with English subtitles, and is a period piece set in the 18th century. Definitely not a movie for children, but possibly perfect for couples looking to have a classy, indoor date night while stuck in quarantine.
Marianne is a painter commissioned to paint a portrait of Heloise ahead of Heloise’s arranged marriage on the coast of France in the mid-1700s. Heloise is being forced into the marriage after her older sister committed suicide, and she wants neither the wedding nor the painting. Marianne must therefore pose as a mere companion in order to secretly study Heloise’s features.
A touching romance ensues.
And what a romance it is. “Portrait” is not a romantic comedy, nor is it one of those ‘will they/won’t they’ sorts of romances. This movie knows exactly the story it wants to tell, and it delivers that romance in every glance, every turn of the head, every moment shared on screen by the two main characters.
The movie is deliberate in its craft. Some might call it slow — and I think I did, earlier in this review — but the slow nature of the first half of the film is all about setting the scene and building the mood., and that works splendidly once we’re in the heat of the moment. But “Portrait” also isn’t a fairy tale romance.
I don’t want to give too much away, but there is great tragedy in this story. The movie doesn’t hide from this. The main story is told as a flashback after the movie opens with a glimpse of the ‘present day.’ So even while you’re watching these two women fall in love, somewhere in the back of your mind you just know something is going to go wrong. And that added tension, of assuming there won’t be a fairy tale ending, makes for an even more dramatic experience.
Another aspect of the film I enjoyed was the sense of, for lack of a better term, girl power. Along with Marianne and Heloise as the two main characters, a third girl, Sophie, joins them as the young maid in the French manor. “Portrait” spends a lot of time with just the three women helping one another, bonding with one another, being empowered by one another. It’s a fun little subplot that helps round out the film.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is an experience. It’s a wonderfully told romance that really tugs at the heart strings. It’s also in another language, and filmed with slow determination. Don’t go in expecting a typical American love story. It’s all the better for being its own thing.