“What does a lesbian bring on a second date?” asks the setup of a classic joke about lesbians. It plays on a ridiculous stereotype, but not one that wasn’t in my mind as my girlfriend and I watched a Valentine’s Day screening of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, surrounded by a visible number of pairs of queer women. (Even more, can you believe, than the time we saw Disobedience on our second date. For the record, I do not recommend seeing Disobedience on a second date.) The bit is that women who date women form ridiculously intense emotional connections in record time and then want to spend all of their waking hours and minutes — and the non-waking ones — only in the company of each other. The so-called “urge to merge.” “A U-Haul” is, of course, the joke’s answer.
That’s not quite what happens in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait — available now on Hulu — but that’s also, if you analyze it very reductively, not not what happens. (Spoilers ahead.) Marianne, a painter, is summoned to an island off the coast of Brittany, France, where she is tasked with painting the portrait of Héloïse. This is somewhat complicated by the fact that Héloïse is not to know that’s why Marianne is there; instead she believes the artist has come to be her companion. (If I may … that’s gay as fuck.) You already know where this is going but, slowly, over the course of many walks on the beach and days spent tiptoeing around Héloïse’s family home, they fall in love. A brief, passionate, all-consuming romance where the pair only spends time in each other’s company, with the occasional appearance from Héloïse’s maid, Sophie, who also lives in the house. I didn’t realize it at the time, in February, when most of us were plodding through life unaware of the scope of the brewing global pandemic, but this movie is a master class in social distancing.
If you think about it, U-Hauling is about the best thing you can do for public health right now. If you and your partner define the relationship — we’re living in truly unprecedented times; who cares about moving too fast — you can limit the potential spread of the coronavirus. Agreeing to see only each other means you’re tightening your circle of potential disease vectors. Moving into one of your apartments and agreeing to hunker down there for an as-yet-undetermined number of weeks without seeing any of your other friends and family would have been grounds for an intervention six months ago. Now … you’re braver than the damn Marines. This is exactly, I believe, what the Department of Health had in mind when it issued a set of sex guidelines for New York City earlier this week, which designated, after yourself, the safest person to have sex with is someone you live with.
Let’s return to that beach. That beautifully empty beach where Marianne and Héloïse take their daily constitutionals with their faces wrapped in scarves. There’s never anybody visible for miles and miles. The same isolation that allows them to smooch in sea caves and gaze longingly at each other while pretending to be peering out into the vast ocean would also keep them safe from viral spread. The house where the two are living … likewise deserted. Héloïse’s mother heads off on a few days’ journey to Italy, leaving the duo alone with Sophie. At one point, the trio heads to the home of the local woman who gives Sophie an abortion. This is health care, an essential service. And there are a number of other women in the iconic bonfire scene that ensues, sure, but if they all stood a few feet — six, to be precise — apart, that would qualify as social distancing, too.
(There are some flaws in this thesis — yes, I know. Like if Héloïse’s mother was infected and then left France for Italy, bringing the virus with her. Or the fact that Marianne is summoned to the island from elsewhere. Please just let me have this anyway; it has been a very long week.)
What I’m saying is … stay inside. Stream Portrait of a Lady on Fire on Hulu. Despite this deranged essay, it’s a beautiful and gut-wrenching piece of art that will make you question what it means to love and survive. Stream it and know that you’re doing a real service by sitting on your couch and watching a gorgeous movie. Take it from me, a lesbian whose girlfriend moved into her tiny studio apartment a few weeks ago in the interest of, uh, public health.