Portrait of a Lady on Fire was the last film I saw in theaters. It was March 6, so not exactly before everything changed, but during. For the first time in my life, I was fully conscious of everything I was touching, of how many people might have touched this door handle or that armrest before me. I was uneasy and disgusted with the person sitting a few seats over from me who ate her pretzel loudly and coughed freely throughout the movie. Being at the movie theater felt wrong and unsafe even then, a risk I should not have been taking.
Still, I’m glad Céline Sciamma’s masterpiece was the last movie I saw in theaters in 2020. It is a perfect film. Full stop, no qualifiers. It is perfect. And transportational and evocative and so fundamentally unlike any other movie that it could be the only movie to ever exist and I would be perfectly happy to watch it on an endless loop. Ecstatic, even. Portrait contains a world that is separate from our own and special for its separateness.
Though now, three months after seeing it on the big screen and now holding the Criterion Collection edition in my hands, it feels less separate than it did then. Over these past three months, I’ve felt like I’ve lived in a version of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) and Marianne’s (Noémie Merlant) island. My island includes a husband and a 1-year-old boy, a far cry from the peaceful self-sufficiency of their temporary Themysciran utopia, but it is an island nonetheless, full of love and also longing.
Not the same kind of longing, of course, but also not so different. Héloïse and Marianne long for a future they can never have together; I long for a future where things might be a little less broken. A future where I have a job again — maybe not the one I loved and lost just before the world changed irrevocably but at least one that would make me feel a little less worthless. A future where I can hug my mother again and she can hug my son. It all feels so far away, and it gets farther away each time I look over my shoulder to try and catch a glimpse of it.
Héloïse and Marianne’s island is a sanctuary free from the patriarchal world that will kill them the first chance it gets. So, too, is my island. I know I’m lucky to have one that will keep me safe, but I’m also angry that this sexist, capitalist world has reduced me to a role that it would force upon every woman, as it has for centuries — unemployed mother.
Héloïse’s anger at her own impending marriage is a comfort to me, much more now than it was before. The secrets she embeds into her later portrait with her child are also a comfort. Private reminders of a life dreamed about rather than remembered are sometimes the only things that can keep us going.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire was always going to be a special movie for me, before it was the last of a time that is now gone forever. It feels all the more precious to me now. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch it without crying the same way Héloïse cries at the end, a cry of release that can only come from witnessing art and remembering what you felt when you first experienced that art.
How many years passed before Héloïse allowed herself that release? I am also lucky that Portrait let me have mine at three months.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is now available on DVD and Blu-ray via the Criterion Collection.