Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★★

Prior to rewatching this, I thought I had some degree of intelligence. I thought perhaps you could consider me vaguely smart. It turns out, I was completely wrong. For some reason, the version of myself that was seeing Portrait of a Lady on Fire in the the cinema was bold enough to give the film 4.5 starts.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a true masterpiece, also a new addition to my top 50, and, deservedly, top 4. This film is perfect in every sense of the word.

Presented with the subtle vibrancy of baroque paintings, POALOF is instantly compelling visually. Starting with perhaps one of the most modest yet impressively minimalistic openings and jumping back to the beginning of the story is such an incredible decision. The film somehow becomes so much more special due to the bookended nature of the 'meat' of the story. It feels as though it is something more special, something more important and something so much more nuanced. The film would still be incredible if it were not framed as a series of memories but this helps it stand out, it helps it become something more and it makes it so much more interesting. The baroquian look does not vanish either, in fact, it gets stronger. People praise films like Her, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Amélie and Suspiria for their colour but I genuinely believe POALOF beats them by a mile. Every shot is full of such incredibly composed images, all perfectly coloured to create a beautiful atmosphere that the story exists within. Praise not only to the cinematography but also to the set and costume designers, who clearly used some sort of magic to create such intensely stunning pieces. I would like to meet whoever colour graded all of this.

The other standout features of this film are the more expressive elements. The obvious use of foreshadowing in an extremely explicit way, using the white dress, is perhaps my favourite part of the film. Placing these incredibly unusual, perhaps even Lynchian (and I do not use that word lightly!) aspects into an otherwise very realistic story seals the deal for me. This use of expressionism in combination with the editing that leaves so much to be desired and so much missing in combination with the direction that heavily focuses on Marianne and Héloïse, often leaving characters in scenes mostly out of focus or out of frame, creates an amazingly ethereal presentation of a series of memories, an experience that will stick in the viewer's own for weeks (or over a year, in my case).

As the cherry on top of this magnificent cake, both Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel give performances equivalent to Van Goghs. I often say that engaging in characters in foreign language films is easier, due to not understanding the words being spoken by the actors and not knowing the nuances of speech delivery for the respective languages, we're simply left with subtitles and the quality of performance becomes irrelevant (to an extent...). That being said, Merlant and Haenel kick that barrier down with the force of two trains at full speed. The pair of powerhouses have such magnetism and such believable chemistry and it appears so brilliantly real. Each character has a set of mannerisms so tiny that from their first ten minutes of screen time easily become some of the most realistic characters I've ever seen.

This is going to be a film that, in the future, I'll proudly tell people I saw in the cinema. Maybe I won't mention that I originally gave it 4.5/5 but I will most definitely remember being there and watching it last year. It was so great to refresh that memory through the power of Blu-ray. This is a film that will undoubtedly inspire my work in the future, whether that be work I just put on YouTube and Vimeo or work I am lucky enough to show to an audience in a cinema. I will always cite this as one of those great pieces of inspiration.

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