Released less than a month before the UK entered lockdown, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a memory from the Before Times. Not only is it about so much of what has been taken from us this year, but the film itself is a recollection of ‘a long time ago’ from when Marianne knew the figure on fire at the heart of her piece which gives the film its name. She’s caught off guard by it being on display, still moved by what it depicts. The film is of what happened then, a long time ago, every detail as important as each brushstroke. This is no half-forgotten tale.

Before I go on, there has already been incredible writing on this film from non-male, LGBTQ critics which are essential reading. This by RaeAnn Quick on Flipscreened is so insightful about the ways in which invention is key to communication within lesbian relationships. Rachel Syme’s New Yorker essay looks at the female gaze in the film and the wider cinematic landscape. At Cultured Queers, Whitnee Ramos talks of the community built around the ‘Portrait Nation’ and how those behind the camera meant as much as what was depicted on screen.

Portrait 1

Courtesy of: Curzon Artificial Eye

In his joyful American Utopia show, David Byrne speaks of removing everything from the stage that would distract from being able to look at the people around him. Portrait is a film that takes place on a quiet island off the coast of the French mainland, in a house that contains few items. There are no books and the harpsichord is hidden under a plain sheet. There are surfaces – beds, tables, chairs – and a portrait of Héloïse’s mother. Its colour palette is drab, with only the fire’s flames and green fabric in Sophie’s (Luàna Bajrami) embroidery brightening the place up. It means there are no distractions in the way of Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) paying attention to one another.

Like Sister Sarah said in Lady Bird, maybe love and attention are the same thing. By the time Marianne and Héloïse are left alone in the house, their eye contact is significant. What was once a relationship framed around the looker and the looked at, now their observance goes both ways. It catches Marianne off guard when Héloïse lists her physical tells in the same way Marianne did to her moments prior, believing she had the upper hand because of her position as portrait artist. That amount of noticing and being noticed felt all the more electric in a year of Zoom calls when we spent most of the time looking at ourselves on screen, and in which it’s impossible to really look at each other. Its absence from our 2020 highlighted its importance; Portrait of a Lady on Fire did too. To look and to be looked at are not passive actions.

Portrait 2

Courtesy of: Curzon Artificial Eye

That’s true outside of the film’s central romance too. During Sophie’s abortion, Héloïse tells Marianne to look when at first she turns her head. When something is seen to be happening, it makes it more real. As witnesses, they show solidarity with Sophie and accompany her through the unpleasant procedure. They later commit it to paper, intimately restaging the scene, as the film reframes art from something detached and impersonal – Marianne’s professional commission – to a means of meaningful preservation. A sketch on page 28 will forever bond the two women. An impulse to document Héloïse as she sleeps soundly, only to wake and non-verbally invite Marianne to continue, seals that moment of affection in eternity.

That the pair, along with Sophie, are able to work their way through their vulnerabilities and intimacy is almost taken for granted. Within the cinematic form, why couldn’t this tale from a long time ago, taking place in seclusion, exist in a world with no one else and no obligations. Their peace is shattered when they wake one morning to find a man in the kitchen, having accompanied Héloïse’s mother back from her trip. That anyone of any gender had joined the household would put an end to the safety they had cultivated, but the male gaze takes more than that. Conversations around abortion and periods happen matter-of-factly in this 18th-century drama when only women are present. Around 200 years later, Greta Gerwig would insist everyone say ‘menstruation’ at the dinner table in 20th Century Women, the world still uncomfortable with biological functions affecting more than half the population.

Portrait 3

Courtesy of: Curzon Artificial Eye

After Héloïse goes for her first solo walk, she says, “I felt the liberty you spoke of, but I also felt your absence”. That feeling of absence hangs over the film. Both women know their time together is finite. A conversation about Orpheus and Eurydice finds favour in choosing the memory of someone over their continued presence. They even try to curate how they will appear as memories to one another, discussing how to imagine the other – if at all – once their time together comes to an end. The success of the film itself is a testament to the power of memory: before a rewatch for this article, I last saw the film in February and my love for it had only grown and grown. Returning to it after all that time was stressful. What if it wasn’t as good as I’d imagined? I was content with the poet’s choice to remember the film, but was relieved by the lover’s choice to spend time with it and find, again, that it really is as good as everyone has said for over a year now.

That Portrait of a Lady on Fire felt so relevant to the way we lived our lives in 2020 was purely coincidental, right down to the moment Marianne and Héloïse share their first kiss after removing their masks in isolation outdoors. It is a remarkable piece of work by the most reliable director working today, Céline Sciamma. She has consistently invited audiences into intimate spaces, and her confidence at doing so makes for some of the strongest cinema of the 21st century. Here, that intimacy is complemented by a sort of mindfulness in which every gaze matters and every movement is seismic. To communicate that so powerfully is always the mark of a master filmmaker, but it was felt all the more in a year we have been starved for connection. The second of two films in ORWAV’s top 20 about what happens when people are left alone on an island, it is a film that finds significance where it is cultivated and in which attention is understood to be an active and intimate act. Like Héloïse and Marianne, I haven’t stopped thinking about it and I haven’t stopped feeling it.

So to recap, here’s our Top 20 so far…

=#20 – Shirley
=#20 – A Hidden Life
#19 – And Then We Danced
#18 – Dick Johnson is Dead
#17 – Never Rarely Sometimes Always
#16 – Wolfwalkers
#15 – I’m Thinking of Ending Things
#14 – True History of the Kelly Gang
#13 – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
#12 – Lovers Rock
#11 – Ema
#10 – Mangrove
#9 – Rocks
#8 – 1917
#7 – Bacurau
#6 – Babyteeth
#5 – The Lighthouse
#4 – Uncut Gems
#3 – Little Women
#2 – Portrait of a Lady on Fire

What’s your number 1 film of 2020?