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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an outstanding French drama -- with English subtitles -- set in the late 18th century about two women who fall in love and begin an affair. The movie contains some sex scenes, with nudity, between the two leads -- Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) -- including naked breasts and pubic hair. During one sexual encounter, Héloïse pushes her fingers in and out of Marianne's armpit in a suggestive manner. Though sexual, it's also a means to taking an unspecified hallucinogenic drug that "slows down time." A character tries to deliberately miscarry by overexercising and drinking a homemade herbal tea before visiting a woman who gives her an abortion. Héloïse is being forced to get married against her will. There is reference to what may or may not have been a suicide. There is some drinking of wine -- although never to excess -- and Marianne smokes a pipe, which she shares with Héloïse. Both Marianne and Héloïse are positive role models and their relationship brings the best out of them. Positive themes of friendship, communication, love, and the female gaze are explored throughout. The movie also goes by its French title, Portrait de la jeune fille en feu.
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What's the story?
In PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE, on a remote French island in late 18th century, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned by a countess to paint a portrait of her daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The painting is a wedding gift for Héloïse's future husband, a marriage Héloïse does not want to happen. As the two women spend more time together, they grow closer until their romantic feelings come to the fore.
Is it any good?
Beautifully shot, perfectly timed, and with breathtaking performances from the two leads, this film is a masterpiece in cinema. The dialogue is in French -- with English subtitles -- but the real language here is all portrayed in the eyes. Stolen glances and longing looks are the vehicle that transports us through this love story between two star-crossed lovers. Directed and written by Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire centers around the female gaze. Héloïse may be the subject of the portrait, but she observes Marianne just as intently. The sex scenes too, never feel gratuitous, only natural.
Much of the movie is symbolic -- a portrait catching alight in the exact place the heart would be -- and at times it's as if we're inside a scene from a painting. In less skilled hands, it could feel pretentious. But this is a movie that pulls you in and doesn't let go until the (silent) end credits roll. Even then you'll still be able to feel its grasp.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how Portrait of a Lady on Fire approaches sex. What does it represent for the characters? Parents, talk to your teens about your own values regarding sex and relationships.
How does the movie handle the subject of sexuality? How might Marianne and Héloïse's relationship have been received in the era it takes place in? How might their situation be different today?
Marianne and Héloïse's relationship relies heavily on talking to each other. Why is communication such an important character strength?
The movie is made by a woman and is about women and the female gaze. How does this differ from a lot of other films? Do you think the movie would have looked different if it had been written and directed by a man? If so, why?
- In theaters: February 14, 2020
- On DVD or streaming: June 23, 2020
- Cast: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami
- Director: Celine Sciamma
- Studio: Neon
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Friendship, History
- Character strengths: Communication, Compassion, Empathy
- Run time: 122 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: some nudity and sexuality
- Last updated: June 22, 2020
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