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Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the perfect Valentine’s Day movie

This French film about two women who fall in love in the 1770s is a beautiful romance and a heartbreaking love story.

Marianne and Heloise cuddle and caress in the movie Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Marianne and Héloïse get closer than ever before.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The best romances are about physical proximity. Two people become so close to each other that they simply cannot stay apart. Every brush of hands against each other, every longing look — they all combine into something irresistible and unstoppable.

There’s an exquisite agony to watching two people who should be together defy the odds and remain apart, then an incredible pleasure in seeing them finally fall into each other’s arms.

But the best love stories, by contrast, require physical separation, pulling two people who should be together apart by a force stronger than themselves. The force could be death. It could be a society that refuses to acknowledge their love. It could just be geography.

The point is that in both romances and love stories, happiness and connection have to ultimately be fleeting for us to truly feel satisfied. We know too well from so many examples that the first kiss gives way to the reality of actually getting to know another person and realizing all their tics and flaws. Similarly, once a perfect love is realized, we find it almost easier to believe that it can only continue to exist if the lovers can no longer see each other. We always ache most for that which we can’t have.

What makes the French masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire — one of my favorite movies ever made, and the perfect Valentine’s Day date movie — so good is that it’s both a great romance and a great love story. The two bleed into each other so skillfully that you’ll almost miss where the romance begins and the love story ends.

And right alongside the blend of romance and love is a movie full of concerns about women’s place in the world, class barriers, and the ways a sisterhood among women can make the world more bearable for all welcomed into its embrace, right up until the world comes knocking down the door.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes the beats of Titanic and transports them to a story about two women in 1770s France

Heloise’s dress catches on fire in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
This is definitely a lady on fire, but it is not yet a portrait of a lady on fire.

When I interviewed Portrait of a Lady on Fire director Céline Sciamma in January (for an upcoming piece), she said that one of the movies she studied often when making the film was the 1997 blockbuster Titanic, one of the most successful movies ever made.

When you consider that Sciamma is a director of small, exquisitely realized stories about the lives of women in a society that rarely has room for them and not a blockbuster director like Titanic’s James Cameron, this influence might seem a little odd. But watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and it all starts to make sense. Just like Titanic, it’s a movie about how women are confined by societal expectations when it comes to the people their hearts long for.

Sciamma’s prior films (check out 2014’s Girlhood for a sterling example of her work) have been set in present-day France, each one focused on the lives of women whose stories aren’t often told onscreen. (Girlhood, for instance, is about a black French teenager, the kind of character whose life had been rarely depicted in French film to that point.) Portrait breaks with that tradition by being set in the 1770s, on a remote island off the coast of France, where a young woman waits to be wedded off to a suitor who remains unseen.

The woman’s name is Héloïse (performed by longtime Sciamma collaborator Adèle Haenel), and she is to marry the man her older sister had been promised to. Her sister died by suicide, and Héloïse’s mother, scrambling, has been trying to get the would-be bride to sit for a bridal portrait, an image crafted to show the would-be groom just how beautiful and perfect his future spouse is. The trouble is that Héloïse doesn’t particularly want to get married and won’t sit to be painted.

Enter Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young woman whose father was a great artist, and who hopes to build on his legacy by painting her own images. We know from a clever framing device that Marianne eventually succeeds at making a living from her art — but also we know that whatever happened between her and Héloïse has marked her deeply.

The story is told through Marianne’s eyes, and it takes several long minutes for us to see Héloïse’s face at all, Sciamma building the mystery skillfully as both Marianne and we long to see her, never quite catching a glimpse, but hoping and hoping and ...

When the two finally stop on a seaside cliff (this is a movie brimming with romantic vistas), Marianne and Hélöise spend what feels like a full hour just looking at each other, saying nothing. Marianne has been brought along under the guise of being a walking companion for Héloïse. Then, at night, Marianne will use her memories of Héloïse to work on the painting. Thus, as the two women grow closer, first as friends and then as perhaps more, Marianne’s work on the painting becomes a horrible time bomb waiting to explode. To succeed as an artist, she has to finish it. To finish it is to send Héloïse away forever.

Sciamma’s talent for standing back to watch women simply interacting is at its peak in this film, which has only four major characters and spends almost all of its time on three of them (Marianne, Héloïse, and Hélöise’s maid Sophie, played by Luàna Bajrami, in a wonderful performance). Sciamma has a keen eye for the ways that women have always cared for each other under the radar of society, dealing with unwanted pregnancies and building little communities in plain sight. But always, somewhere off to the side, a world ruled by men awaits.

I really don’t dare tell you more about this movie, except to say that its cinematography by Claire Mathon uses low-light settings to create images that frequently made me gasp. (There’s a shot of Héloïse seeming to haunt Marianne that gains more and more power as the film goes on and it keeps appearing.) Some of its power resides in how skillfully it tells you a story that can end only one way, yet offers hope that it will somehow end otherwise.

Too rarely are the things we long to hold on to actually those which stay in our grasp. Far more often, all we have left are memories, smudged and indistinct, like a painting marred by an untimely brush of a hand.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is playing in theaters in select cities, but will be expanding throughout the country in the weeks to come. (This movie!!! See it!!!)

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