Toronto: 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' Gathers Momentum, But Will France Tap It for Oscar Race?

Portrait of a Lady on Fire - Telluride Film Festival - Publicity - H 2019
Telluride Film Festival

French filmmaker Celine Sciamma's fourth feature, the lesbian love story Portrait of a Lady on Fire, made its Toronto International Film Festival debut Friday at the Winter Garden Theatre, having already claimed the best screenplay prize and Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival in May and charmed North Americans earlier in the week at the Telluride Film Festival. Portrait, which has frequently been likened to 2013 Cannes winner Blue Is the Warmest Color and 2017 standout (and eventual best picture Oscar nominee) Call Me by Your Name, was very warmly received by TIFF moviegoers and pundits alike.

Visually gorgeous (thanks to cinematographer Claire Mathon), well acted (by leading ladies Noemi Merlant and Adele Haenel) and a bit slow but never dull, the film tells the story of two women brought together by unlikely circumstances. A countess in 1770s Brittany, France’s northwesternmost region, has lost one of her two daughters to a suspicious death and is about to lose her other (Haenel) to an arranged marriage, but first retains the services of a female painter (Merlant) to capture the surviving daughter in a portrait that will then be sent ahead of the daughter to her betrothed. The catch? The daughter refused to pose for a prior artist, so this artist will have to pose as a walking companion by day and then paint from memory by night.

Those who have seen Otto Preminger's classic 1944 movie Laura will remember a man falling in love with a woman he doesn't know by staring at her painting. Portrait essentially tells a variation of that story: A woman falls in love with a woman she doesn't know by studying her closely in order to be able to paint her. (This is a film in which men utter nary a word, and the "female gaze," as others have noted, is front and center.)

Portrait was acquired out of Cannes by Neon, for U.S. theatrical distribution, and Hulu, for subsequent streaming. Neon intends to mount an awards campaign for it, taking the pic to the New York Film Festival and other choice stops en route to a Dec. 6 release. It remains to be seen if France, which always has many worthy options, will select Portrait of a Lady on Fire as its entry in the best international feature film Oscar race. Should that happen, it will be a serious contender. Should it not, the film will probably have to settle for accolades from critics' groups.