Thursday, May 6, 2021

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ lights up on Hulu

The film release market has become the wild west after the coronavirus outbreak. With theaters closing down across the country, studios are starting to introduce films that were playing worldwide just last week to iTunes and other video rental sites. Films like “The Hunt” and “The Invisible Man” can now be rented for $19.99. Neon, the distribution company behind “Parasite,” has also taken one of their films, which had just premiered in February, and uploaded it onto Hulu to be openly streamed.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” written and directed by Céline Sciamma, is set at the end of the eighteenth century on a remote island off the coast of France. Noémie Merlant stars as Marianne, an artist hired to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse, played by Adèle Haenel. Héloïse is resistant to both her arranged marriage and the portrait. So, Marianne must study her during the day and then paint from memory at night. As the days go on, they begin to discover more about each other and themselves. They form an endearing relationship as they fall in love.

Neon may have won big with “Parasite” at the Academy Awards this year, but it is a shame they did not put as much effort behind a campaign for this movie.

As Marianne’s inner monologue explains to the audience how she observes her model, we start to change how we watch the film. 

The camera-work in the film shifts immensely. There are rarely any close-up shots, and keeping a voyeuristic distance from Héloïse makes the audience start to plead for a moment of intimacy. This technique prevents the film from feeling fetishistic — as if a man were to direct this story — such as in “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” directed by Abdellatif Kechiche.

The story is also set on an island that is separated from society, so the plot is able to avoid the stereotypes of homosexual love stories. Sciamma is not interested in writing clichéd conversations that other outsider love stories in film have where someone tearfully declares that they don’t care about what other people think in relation to their love. We are able to spend the whole two hours reflecting on when the time will come when the portrait is finished and when they will have to leave each other. 

Both Merlant and Haenel play incredibly well off of each other. They need to have their relationship start hostile with the right undercurrent that this will pass and turn into something beautiful.

Despite being set in an immaculate classical period in history, Sciamma resists the urge to fill out the quiet moments in the manor with a larger than life score. The soundtrack remains bare bones with only a couple of musical moments. It is another great example of withholding in filmmaking that allows for truly beautiful moments.

While it is a shame that “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was not able to play in theaters nationwide, maybe it is a good thing that it arrived on a streaming platform so soon. It would have been worth the price of admission, but it is definitely worth pressing play on Hulu.


Email Cameron Kaercher at

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