Coming out of the theatre after “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” I felt a little disappointed. The plot had seemed right up my alley: in the late 1700s, a painter (Noémie Merlant, “Heaven Will Wait”) and her subject (Adèle Haenel, “Suzanne”), an aristocratic woman about to be married to a stranger, fall in love. The performances were great from the start, which was a good sign. Both Marianne, the artist, and Héloïse, the aristocrat, are played wonderfully by Merland and Haenel. The cinematography is immaculate too, perfectly capturing a rustic French villa that lies next to a sparkling sea. Still, for most of the movie, I was bored out of my skull.
We never learn much about the two characters, except that one is a painter and the other is an aristocrat who doesn’t want to get married. Certain questions that more conventional movies would address, such as what it’s like growing up LGBTQ+ in a hostile time, are thrown to the wayside for understated scenes where little is said. Mostly, characters spend time walking on the beach, painting, looking at paintings, and making out. I wasn’t sure what these women saw in one another, or what they got out of their relationship. It’s hard to care about them without knowing what’s at stake.
The movie plays out like a long, hazy daydream about two 1700s-era women I knew little about. There are moments that blow past this subdued temporal distance, especially the titular scene: a black dress burns while the woman wearing it stares intently into the camera. In another, a maid discovers she is pregnant and frankly admits she wants an abortion, blowing through usual “period piece” stereotypes. These piercing scenes were few and far between, though, and mostly I was underwhelmed. This is a shame, because one of my favorite genres is LGBTQ+ cinema.
Why didn’t “Portrait” affect me like “Moonlight,” “Call Me by Your Name” and “Love Simon” did? On my way home from the movie, I realized what was lacking: joy.
In “Moonlight,” Chiron discovers his sexuality through a moonlit kiss on a Californian beach. In “Call Me By Your Name,” Elio and Oliver first kiss in a whispering grass field under a shady tree. The kiss in “Love Simon” is atop a ferris wheel during a fireworks show, while an entire high school cheers the couple on. Even “The Favourite” had joyous (albeit deranged) love between Queen Anne and her female suitors.
The ending of “Portrait” has no crazy leap of faith, no unexpected, perfect lovers’ reunion and there’s no ferris wheel to be found. It ends sadly, and I wonder why these two women let things end without putting up any kind of fight. Yet is it realistic of me to ask for a happy ending for characters who lived in a time when LGBTQ+ identities were ignored, marginalized and directly attacked?
Perhaps I’ve been a tad spoiled by the recent flourishing of queer cinema. While essential, and utterly triumphant, the cinematic mainstream’s embrace of LGBTQ+ characters has been a tad one-dimensional.
Take two recent examples from this past summer. In “Rocketman,” Elton John goes through a tumultuous journey of fame and self discovery that culminates with the perfect American husband and kids. In “Booksmart,” Amy’s first time ends with her puking on the girl, but she still somehow gets her phone number by the movie’s end.
Love is a spectrum, and queer cinema should reflect that. It can be sublime, but more often than not it has shades of frustration, confusion and, yes, boredom. Endings aren’t always happy, and beginnings aren’t either. Would it really be realistic for a film set in the 1700s to have two women find perfect, unrestrained happiness in a relationship deemed a mortal sin by their society? In that situation, I’d be hesitant too.
While it’s been great to revel in the colorful, excited sense of romance in recent LGBTQ+ movies, more complex fare must be encouraged too. Other countries, time periods and experiences should be brought to the table, and every queer film is valid no matter the amount of fireworks.
In retrospect, I’m glad “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” took such a realistic approach, and look forward to seeing it again.