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The devastating detail hiding in the French grammar of Portrait of a Lady on Fire

What the subtitles in this stunning love story won’t tell you.

Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Lilies Films/Hold-Up Films/Arte France Cinéma
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the year’s most beautiful and romantic films. It’s also currently streaming on Hulu, so you can watch its tale of forbidden, 18th century French lesbian love while continuing to responsibly social distance yourself from others.

And should you choose to do so, there is one tiny, devastating detail in Portrait of a Lady on Fire that is easy to miss, especially if you don’t speak French.

It only lasts for a second. The subtitles won’t let you in on it. But once you know it’s there, it will break your heart.

Spoilers follow.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the story of two young women in 18th century France. Héloïse is an aristocrat whose mother is trying to marry her off to a stranger in Milan. Marianne is an artist who has been hired to paint Héloïse’s portrait as a gift for Héloïse’s would-be suitor. But since Héloïse refuses to sit for the portrait, Marianne employs a subterfuge: She tells Héloïse that she is there only to be her walking companion.

During the day, Marianne attempts to memorize Héloïse’s features as they take walks along a windy beach. At night, she commits them to canvas.

It’s a potent premise for a love story. In film, we dramatize attraction through the intensity of the lover’s gaze (remember this viral twitter thread about The Look?). And in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Marianne has no choice but to watch Héloïse with enormous intensity. Attraction must inevitably follow.

Before too long, Marianne and Héloïse are in love, and then in bed together. But all the time, there remains a certain precise and minimal distance between them, and that distance is all wound up in the French word vous.

Vous is the formal address in French. It means you, but it’s a formal version of you, with a sir or a madam invisibly appended. It’s not the word you use when addressing intimate relations like family members, who rate the informal pronoun tu. The equivalent in Spanish would be the formal usted versus the informal . English, too, used to have a similar split: Until about the 17th century, English speakers used you to indicate formality and thou to indicate intimacy.

In French, to transition between calling someone vous and calling them tu — moving from a position of formality to a position of intimacy — is called tutoyer. But in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it takes a very long time for that transition ever to come.

After they sleep together, Marianne and Héloïse continue to use the word vous to address one another. They continue to use it after they declare their love for one another. They use it during what they know will be their last night together, as they admonish one another to stay awake and recount which moments from their brief, bittersweet romance they will carry with them after they part. They continue to use vous all the way up until their very last second together.

Then Marianne runs out of the house in tears. And Héloïse, in her wedding gown, comes flying down the stairs after her.

“Retourne-toi!” Héloïse calls. She’s saying, “Turn around” — and she’s saying it in the informal mode.

Marianne turns around and looks at Héloïse. And for this single, shining moment, for just a breath, they are intimates and equals, and they know each other in a way that no one else ever will.

And then Marianne leaves, and Héloïse never sees her again. But French speakers in the audience now know the true depth of their intimacy. It goes all the way into their grammar.

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