Now that most of us are (hopefully) sheltering in place to help slow the spread of Covid-19, Hollywood has taken some surprising steps to keep us entertained from within the confines of our homes. Universal and Disney were quick to put their still-in-theaters movies on video-on-demand platforms, with Onward, The Hunt, The Invisible Man, and Emma. seeing early streaming releases (each priced at $19.99, which is slightly less than you’d pay at a theater, unless you’re foregoing popcorn and a giant drink). Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Cats soon followed, appearing on VOD earlier than their scheduled home video releases. Frozen 2 landed on Disney+, while Paramount’s The Lovebirds will premiere on Netflix instead of in theaters (a premiere date has yet to be announced). With movie theaters closed, the Wild West of streaming is the next best thing—and distributors are using this chaotic, unprecedented time to experiment with new ways to reach film audiences.
Yesterday, indie distributor Neon and Hulu made the surprise announcement that the buzzy—and completely gorgeous—French romantic drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire would be going on the streaming service at midnight Pacific. While it’s no blockbuster—its theatrical run, which brought in less than $3.8 million domestically, was nearing its end by the time theaters began to close—it is still one of the best-reviewed films of the year, a critical darling and fan favorite, and a beautiful and emotional queer love story from an acclaimed female writer-director. And, please forgive me, because I’m going to break one of my rules and write the kind of sentence I hate reading, even if I believe it to be true: Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the movie we need right now.
Perhaps that’s because Portrait of a Lady on Fire feels revolutionary despite its story—about two young lovers, destined to be pulled apart by the society in which they live—being so old-fashioned. Or perhaps that’s because it only has four main characters, and they’re all secluded at a remote, seaside estate. Maybe it’s just because it's a movie about absence and longing. Then again, it could just be the face masks. (You'll see.) It’s probably all of the above. Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, who won the award for Best Screenplay at last summer’s Cannes Film Festival, it’s a film that successfully avoids the male gaze and redefines how desire can appear on screen. But it’s the familiarity of its theme that grounds the film, making it feel more like an accomplished adaptation of a classic literary novel rather than a fresh, original story, albeit one set in 18th-century France.
The film centers on a female painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who is commissioned to paint the portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel, the star of Sciamma’s 2007 debut feature Water Lilies). To say that Héloïse is hesitant to sit for her portrait is an understatement; the reclusive aristocrat, engaged to be wed to a nobleman, has refused previous artists’ attempts at capturing her essence on a canvas. Her mother has hired Marianne to pose as a companion to her daughter, and it’s on the pair’s frequent walks along the lush and isolated island off the coast of Brittany that Marianne tries her best to capture Héloïse in her mind so that she can return to her painting in secret. As Marianne and Héloïse spend time together, creating a bond after Marianne admits the reason for her arrival, an obvious—and passionate—attraction grows.
It’s your classic romantic tale of repressed desire, told with a queer bent, which only serves to make the drama and passion even more intense. History is full of love stories about star-crossed lovers, risking it all for the objects of their desire. But Marianne and Héloïse, while in different social classes, are not Romeo and Juliet; their coupling is not the fleeting whim of teenage fantasy, at risk because of dueling families. It’s more complicated, and therefore even more affecting—they know they will never be together, and therefore must take advantage of the little time they have before Héloïse leaves Marianne for a respectable life as a nobleman’s wife. But their love affair will most certainly live on in their hearts and minds, and the distance between them will remain overwhelming and agonizing.
In other words, how extremely romantic! The idea of pining for another you can’t have, of carrying that torch forever! I cannot think of a romance more perfect for our current era, when everyone is (or should be, at least) practicing social distancing, keeping each other safe and healthy by staying apart. (An equally romantic gesture, I think.) And this fraught melodrama lines up with Sciamma’s film’s own strange introduction to the world: following its premiere at Cannes, the film was up for consideration for this year’s Oscars. While there’s no chance it would have bested Parasite for Best International Film, it was shut out of the race entirely when France submitted Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables for that category instead—reducing its chances to get any other well-deserved nominations like Best Original Screenplay or Best Cinematography (and, therefore, attention here in the States). At a time when so many are feeling isolated, this is a movie that feels like it had to go it alone.
But now it’s a perfect quarantine watch thanks to Hulu, which has the exclusive streaming rights ahead of its VOD release in April. Settle in for an intense, emotional ride, a film that’s both striking and stirring—and one with a final shot that puts Call Me by Your Name’s last scene to shame (and will no doubt launch Adèle Haenel to international stardom). Portrait of a Lady on Fire may be the best film to represent our socially distant time, and it may leave you imaging what kind of romantic gestures you’ll embark upon once you can step outside again.
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