Portrait of a Lady on Fire Is a Queer Survival Guide to Self-Isolation

Culture
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Portrait of a Lady on Fire is now available to stream on Hulu; this is a siren call for any queer woman who does not have the French dialogue of this perfectly gay period film currently blaring from their living room. If you haven’t already seen the movie in theaters (and possibly run into your city’s entire queer community while doing so), then you’ve got some catching up to do. Now that the coronavirus pandemic has forced us all to self-isolate in our homes, you can take some valuable lessons from this story.

The film follows a young artist named Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a reluctant bride who has just left the convent after her sister died by suicide. Queer people love a lesbian period film. Even if we don’t like period films, we like lesbian period films. Is this because there’s such a dearth of queer cinema—particularly focused on women and non-binary people—that we will hold on to literally whatever we can get? Yes. But it’s also because the combination of period costumes, the absence of queerbaiting, the inclusion of some truly realistic intimate moments, and a storyline that is about falling in love more than it is the ~gay struggle~ are *chef’s kiss* good. Carol is now celebrated as a queer holiday movie and The Favourite filled in all the important things our European History teachers forgot to teach us about Queen Anne. And now, for what has unfortunately become Pandemic Season, we have Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the late 2019 critical darling that happens to feature plenty of good, gay tips for how to responsibly self-isolate in this uncertain time. Let’s explore them.

Stay in an isolated home by the sea

For five days, Héloïse’s mother leaves the home, and Marianne, Héloïse, and her servant Sophie essentially self-isolate together. No one else is ever in the house, and they busy themselves with various activities: painting, reading the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, embroidering, and trying to perform a safe, at-home abortion using various herbs. Unfortunately that last one isn’t a stretch from our scary reality if state governments keep considering abortion to be a “nonessential procedure.”

Take a lot of sexually tense, socially distant walks

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Héloïse takes a moment to be moody by the sea.

NEON

If you saw this movie a month ago, you probably didn’t notice that the main characters become friends by taking walks by the sea at a distance that does not allow for casual conversation. They might not always be exactly six feet apart, but Marianne keeps her distance while she observes Héloïse. As cinema has taught us, every great crush comes with some dramatic distance.

Wear a scarf to cover your mouth and nose—and then pull it down seductively when you kiss

Again, something else you wouldn’t have picked up pre-pandemic is that Marianne and Héloïse cover their faces with scarves to prevent the wind from whipping at their faces. This isn’t dissimilar to popping a piece of fabric over your nose and mouth when you leave the safety of your home for the occasional grocery store run. The heroines share their first kiss after pulling down their makeshift masks, and it’s mind-numbingly, perfectly gay. Take your quarantine buddy and reenact for similarly overwhelmingly sapphic results. Hide behind a small sea cave for optimal queerness. (Except don’t if your beaches are closed.)

If you venture out in public together, keep your distance

There’s that scene, where the women meet what appears to be the local coven of witches, who have an impressive bonfire going. Marianne and Héloïse stand on opposite sides of the fire and stare longingly into each other’s eyes. They are at a safe distance. There’s plenty of sexual tension. Never mind that Héloïse’s dress catches actual fire and she keeps looking into the eyes of her crush. The tension!

Paint your partner and smile flirtatiously over the canvas, then forget about the painting and have sex

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Héloïse and Marianne share a cheeky smile.

NEON

At one point, Marianne notices her girlfriend/subject can’t break her smile when she’s posing for this very serious portrait. Then they start giggling and and make out a lot. Queer women love a good sexual distraction. It’s not procrastinating if everyone’s satisfied, you know? Or maybe finish the painting and destroy it so you can start all over again and spend more time with your crush. That’s a helpful tip straight from Marianne’s playbook.

Stare into the fire alone and naked

This movie might have Call Me By Your Name beat when it comes to staring-into-the-fire scenes. In an early scene, Marianne sits in the nude, warming herself by the fire, staring. Not a bad suggestion for how to pass the time and be a stereotypical brooding lesbian. Two birds.

Who needs cisgender men?

A man does not come directly into frame at all in the movie. Not once. Just something to think about as we make priorities in this strange new world.

A simple household mirror can be used for both art and creating some sexy memories

If you know, you know.

Queer angst lasts forever—and is free entertainment

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NEON

Even if your quarantine love affair is short, you’ll always remember that sexy scarf kiss. And page 28. Maybe you’ll see your ex from across a crowded symphony hall one day, when we’re all allowed to go outside again. She won’t see you. But you’ll watch her cry as she listens to music you once played for her. And you’ll smile. Because self-isolation wasn’t exactly what you wanted, but damn it was gay.

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