Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the lesbian romance drama we all need this pride month! Its yearning-filled love story is told with such a subtle and deft hand, conveying the emotions of the characters as they gradually leave a mark on each other’s lives. Being set in the 1800s gives the film the opportunity to show, with the lack of technology, how love and stories exist through memories. As the two leads spend more time together, the audience can see the desire building between them. The titular fire imagery throughout symbolizes the igniting passion between the two women and the steadiness of their deeper love, akin to the flame of candlelight.
The film uses the concept of focal points, something very heavily used in art, to emphasize things like facial expressions and glances between the characters in order to paint a certain picture. There are many points in the film where the audience doesn’t see what’s happening but knows what it is, highlighting that it’s not the actions around the characters that are important but what they’re feeling. A character’s eyebrow may quirk at another, or a small gesture may finally make them smile. We see the exact moments that form the larger connection between the two main characters, progressing their heartbreakingly beautiful romance.
Another thing that sets this movie apart from other female-centered films is the lack of male gaze, something very deliberate on the part of the filmmakers. The women aren’t overly sexualized; they simply exist and fall in love. Even when their bodies are shown, it’s done in a way that underscores their connection to and tension with each other in an all-female environment rather than being on display for a man. They exist for each other and for themselves, which is highlighted from both a feminist and queer perspective. Often, the depiction of women loving women in media is sexualized to the point where it’s more for men than queer women. This film hardly includes any men and is, therefore, able to create a picture of lesbian love through the importance of female solidarity and sorority. It builds a pocket of space in the world where that love can be honored and respected. History often erases lesbians, and the secluded setting of the film illustrates that while also using it to show how that very seclusion can provide the safety and security that closeted queer people have always needed to not be afraid of being themselves.
The equality displayed between the women is the essence of the romance. There’s no real power dynamic because they keep each other on equal footing. The film portrays a picturesque, almost utopian story of queer love while still bookending it with the sad reality behind the portrait.