French film defies Oscars snub

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” provides carefully crafted tenderness despite award snub


Ben Wilcox, Staff Writer

As with every reiteration of the Academy Awards, accompanied with the nominee announcements is a barrage of backlash over the biggest snubs. One of the biggest snubs in the recent history of the Oscars came last year when French filmmaker Céline Sciamma’s masterpiece, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, was not nominated for either Best Picture or Best International Film.

This mainly has to do with the politics of how foreign films are nominated, with each country only being permitted one film to nominate. This process resulted in France submitting “Les Misérables”, a timely film that wrestles with the politics of modern-day France, over Sciamma’s period-piece. Although “Les Misérables” is an extremely important picture that represents an important moment, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is arguably one of the best movies I have had the pleasure of viewing. Released in a year where “Parasite” was lauded for bringing more attention to international filmmaking, I found “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” to be an impressive film that was overlooked.

This picture revolves around on an eighteenth century painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who is assigned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a noblewoman arranged to marry a Milanese nobleman. Marianne is told that Héloïse has not cooperated in previous attempts to have her portrait made, so Marianne must attempt to complete the portrait in secret.  Over the course of the film, we see these two grow closer together, and eventually fall in love in the brief stolen moments when they are able to be together. Although their eventual separation is inevitable, the movie sets the story for the audience to bask in the richness of their passionate, albeit short relationship.

This picture is a beautiful display of visual storytelling.  Although dialogue can be sparse and muted, the vivid colors and actions stand to replace what remains unspoken. The camera is very clear in the hands of a master at her craft.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a film that is carefully crafted, tender and fragile. This film is unique in how delicately it appears to be crafted. It displays a great deal of love, care, gentleness, and patience. This is a truly gentle and heartfelt film released in a time in which it is rare to find such a genuine expression of goodness and kindness. Not a lot of filmmakers would risk making their film as slow and tender as Céline Sciamma did here.

The atmosphere created in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is also phenomenal. There is a swallowed melancholy about every scene that underlies even the most joyous parts of the movie. It slowly builds like that feeling you get in your throat just before sobbing. The sorrows of the film feel muted and subtle, but it finally boils over in one of the most tear-jerking scenes I have seen on the big screen.

This is not a film that likes to go for the big “Oscar moments” where two people scream or sob at each other, this film prefers subtlety. It can swell and crest without doing obvious things to tug on your heartstrings. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a movie that floated under the radar and deserves your attention.