"Is That How You See Me?"

Looking and wanting in period pieces.

I’ll just get right to the point: Portrait of a Lady on Fire is on Hulu now, and you should watch it immediately.

The French independent film, written and directed by Céline Sciamma, had a limited release in December and a wide release in February (which is when I saw it), but now you can watch it from the comfort of your home! On Hulu! For no extra money outside of your Hulu subscription cost! This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, thanks to movie theaters across the country closing due to coronavirus. Even if you had to pay $5.99 to rent it or $19.99 to buy it, as is the case with other movies being released early for digital and at-home viewing, I would still recommend you do it, because it’s that good.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire tells the story of painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who’s commissioned for a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), an aristocrat who’s supposed to wed a Milanese nobleman. She’s supposed to do this not by painting her in real time, but by observing her, as Héloïse’s mother bids Marianne to do, because Héloïse refuses to sit for a portrait. So Marianne looks. And Héloïse looks back. All that looking turns to yearning and yearning turns to loving and loving turns back to yearning again.

You can tell that every glance between the two is intentionally taken, every word is carefully crafted and every touch is deliberately remembered, even at the beginning. There’s a real connection between them that you, the viewer, can feel as they steal glances — Marianne’s are intense, Héloïse’s more cautious — and try to figure each other out without speaking. There’s an intimacy in knowing someone’s unconscious gestures, as the two grow to do and eventually reveal in a scene that, taken literally, is about face-touching and mouth-breathing, but which is transformed into a conversation about how even your most ordinary gestures are works of art to someone who loves you.

The passionate desire that Marianne and Héloïse share only intensifies over the course of their story, which more broadly is one about power and who holds it. Beyond ruminations on artists and subjects and the dynamic between the two, Portrait of a Lady on Fire touches deftly on the effects of those mostly unseen to the camera — men. They don’t make too much of an appearance on the isolated island where Marianne, Héloïse, Héloïse’s mother and young maid Sophie (who has a subplot of her own, one I adore and will probably include in another edition of the newsletter) live, but their presence is felt in the oppressive societal conditions that necessitate Marianne being there. She’s not on the island to simply paint a portrait of Héloïse — she’s painting a portrait that, if Héloïse’s intended fiancé likes, will cement Héloïse’s fate. Tragic, but necessary. It is eighteenth century France, after all, so Héloïse’s mother is bound by the rules of her time in making Héloïse quite the unwilling bride.

But for all its statements about how patriarchy makes two women looking at each other as Marianne and Héloïse do incendiary, the film isn’t posed or shot in the traditional creepy male gaze (think Charlie’s Angels or any action movie, honestly), nor in the subversive female gaze (Steve Roger’s transformation into Captain America in Captain America: The First Avenger). Marianne and Héloïse are peers in status in that house and on that beach, and it doesn’t feel cheap or exploitative to watch them. It feels like a love story between two people on equal footing, and it’s exquisite to watch.

I implore you — if you watch nothing else this weekend, watch this. It is, unironically, a sight to be seen.

Yearning, the powerful kind that’s omnipresent in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is a staple of a specific kind of period films. You know the kind — Keira Knightley’s probably in it, fancy clothing, beautiful scenery, little or no touching between the protagonists who are so, so very in love but can’t quite express it. Here are a few I’ve enjoyed that may fall into that category and a few that may not, listed in no particular order, but they all have some strong longing and love.

  • Pride & Prejudice, available on STARZ, with Keira Knightley (it’s Keira Knightley!) and Matthew Macfadyen (Succession); perhaps the defining work in this genre

  • EMMA., available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime and iTunes, which I reviewed briefly in an earlier edition of the newsletter here, starring Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) and Johnny Flynn (Lovesick); upbeat, witty, entrancing, with the protagonists viciously disliking each other until they don’t

  • Atonement, available on HBO, with James McAvoy (Atomic Blonde) and Keira Knightley (more Keira Knightley!); the fountain scene alone is enough to put this in the Hall of Yearning Fame

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, available on Netflix, starring Lily James (Baby Driver) and Michiel Huisman (The Haunting of Hill House); as cosy as the name would suggest

  • The Favourite, available on HBO, starring Olivia Colman (Fleabag), Rachel Weisz (The Lobster) and Emma Stone (La La Land); there are some pretty strong, uh, feelings in this one

  • Like Water for Chocolate, available on Netflix, in Spanish; lots of longing all around

  • Phantom Thread, available for rent on Amazon Prime and Youtube, starring Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood) and Vicky Krieps (The Girl in the Spider’s Web); “if you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose” should be enough to make you watch it

  • And, honorable mention to Outlander, which technically doesn’t belong on this list because it’s a TV show (STARZ), but is nonetheless about yearning across time

That’s all for this week, folks. Stay safe, stay sane, and stay longing.