I’m Selina, Awards Circuit’s queer Girl Friday for everything LGBTQIA+ on film and TV! With the 2019 Cannes Film Festival at a close, juries have finally made their selections the variety of films in competition this year. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the race for the Queer Palm, Cannes’ prize for films with LGBTQIA+ themes, and after two weeks of screenings, we finally have our winner: Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the 10th film to earn a Queer Palm and the first winning film to be directed by a female filmmaker.
The historic moment was not lost on the Queer Palm jury, lead by actress Virginie Ledoyen and composed of directors Claire Duguet, Marcio Reolon, Filipe Matzembacher and comedian/singer Kee-Yoon Kim. In their official statement, they praised Sciamma’s “artistic mastering” of the lesbian love story, noting how they were “deeply touched by the vision she brings upon artistic creation, [the] blazing heart of [the] film.” The Queer Palm jury also made a point of praising the “sorority” of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” acknowledging the work of the female actresses, technical and artistic crew members who made the moving love story into a masterpiece of its own.
Set in Brittany, France in 1760, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” follows painter Marianne, tasked with a strange mission: she must paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse, a young lady who’s recently left the convent, without her knowledge. Unbeknownst to the young woman, her mother has arranged her marriage to a rich, far off suitor, despite Héloïse’s objections to marriage. To keep up the illusion, Marianne is introduced as a walking companion and new friend for the cloistered Héloïse, who is rarely allowed company. Watching her by day and painting her by night, the pair’s intimacy grows in Héloïse’s last, stolen moments of true freedom, before the painting (and their relationship) is finished for good.
The significance of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is two-fold, highlighting the power of queer women in front of and behind the camera. The fierce, literal burning love Marianne and Héloïse have for each other is the most important thread in the film’s tapestry, but a thousand more entwine historical nods to the queer women before us, and the difficulties of love and identity that does not compute in an aggressively heterosexual world. Héloïse’s early years were spent in a convent, commonplace queer women escaped to avoid heterosexual marriage, but Héloïse couldn’t bear the confinement. Marianne, a painter in a time when high-society women rarely had careers, has the freedom Héloïse craves, but knows freedom together, out in the open, can never be attained.
And let’s not forget Sciamma and lead actress Adèle Haenel, who portrayed Héloïse alongside Noémie Merlant’s Marianne. Sciamma and Haenel are both publicly out queer women, and the significance of queer women taking center stage in front of and behind the camera is something to admire. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is queer on purpose and a period romance to boot, giving queer female viewers not only a sumptuous piece of cinema, but a way to think about those who came before us. How many lesbian love stories ended as Marianne and Héloïse’s will, hidden in plain sight but dismissed by the wider, straighter world?
So where will “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” go from Cannes, with two prizes tucked under her belt? She’ll now be hitting the shores of the U.S. and U.K., with Neon and Hulu locking down U.S. distribution rights and Curzon buying U.K. and Ireland rights. According to IndieWire, Neon will be holding a “traditional theatrical release” for the film and even pursuing an awards campaign in every applicable category. The move is encouraging, but not at all surprising; reviews for the film have been highly complimentary of the romantic lesbian drama, with critics from THR, Variety, Time, and dozens more heaping praise upon “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
It may be early days, but I’d go as far as to say this film will earn an Oscar nomination in the foreign film category, and perhaps even a directing nod for Sciamma. Wins at Cannes supercharge Oscar campaigns, so as long as “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” grabs attention at international festivals like Berlinale and TIFF, the nomination is practically clinched.
It’s less clear if Sciamma’s directing chops will be recognized, but the U.S. and U.K. distribution deals will certainly expose the period romance to a much larger audience. Sciamma, who also received the award for best screenplay for “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” has been a lady on fire since her first foray into cinema. While both Cannes prizes may be Sciamma’s first official wins at Cannes, the French filmmaker has been making waves since her film “Water Lilies,” premiered at Cannes back in 2007, followed up by “Tomboy” in 2011 and “Girlhood” in 2014. She’s a fully-fledged artist in her own right, but with these distribution deals, the Cannes prizes, and wind in her sails from the bevy of praise her film is earning, this might break Sciamma into different strata of recognition. If we respond as strongly to Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” as Cannes audiences did, she could become one of the few female directors to earn a directing nomination at the Oscars.
We’ll have more details on where and when U.S. audiences will be able to see Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” as they become available. To tide you over until then, watch some more clips from the award-winning film below.