The Cannes Film Festival is typically where foreign films begin their Oscar campaign. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the lauded French drama from the festival, looks to do just that. The film won two awards at the prestigious festival: the Queer Palm and Best Screenplay. Now, in the hands of co-distributors NEON and Hulu, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” could be a formidable Oscar player in the months to come.
Set in 18th century France, the film follows Marianne (Noemie Merlant), a painter assigned to do a portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel), a future bride. However, as Marianne follows Heloise day by day, the two women grow closer. They engage in a blissful romance, sharing Heloise’s last moments of freedom before her wedding draws near. (IMDb)
The two leads are relative unknowns while writer/director Celine Sciamma remains similarly unsung. Sciamma, though, could finally achieve a major career boost. The filmmaker has been a critical darling thanks to films like “Tomboy” and “Girlhood,” her previous directorial effort. Yet, she hasn’t caught on with awards bodies the way other foreign filmmakers have. That might change this time around.
In addition, this is a slight stretch from Sciamma’s previous filmography. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is her first period drama and abandons the coming-of-age narrative that is present in her past work. That being said, it still retains themes involving queerness and femininity that Sciamma has previously demonstrated.
Whether it can compete outside of Best International Feature Film (formerly titled Best Foreign Language Film) remains to be seen. But just last year, AMPAS embraced foreign cinema in a major way with “Roma” and “Cold War” receiving above-the-standard recognition. So, categories like both Best Original Screenplay and Best Director for Sciamma may be ones to consider. Due to the category’s penchant for period fare, Best Costume Design is another one to keep an eye on.
It’s also worth noting that the picture would give the Oscar race some queer representation. As writer Selina Mixner previously pointed out, because Sciamma and Haenel are out women, the film allows lesbian artists to take charge of their own narrative. Given the ongoing conversation surrounding straight actors playing gay and even straight directors making LGBTQ+ stories, this could make “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” a watershed moment.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” will be released on Dec. 6 by NEON and Hulu
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