Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★½

The subtext of this film is passion and intimacy. Both are elements needed for great art, the film posits. And similarly, both are needed for true love.

I don't know where I stand on this particular thesis. It is a highly poetic and artsy-fartsy concept around which to construct a script. I would also suggest that it's a highly risky centerpiece for a film. The risk of course is that boredom, disenchantment, pretension, and irrelevance may completely take over the atmosphere of the screening.

However, thankfully, that was the opposite of the case in PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE. For a slow-moving film about an 18th century lady posing for a portrait, the film is unusually riveting. Firstly, the 'lady' (Adele Haenel) and the artist (Noemie Merlant) are gorgeous. And secondly, they in essence give clinics on acting for the camera. Both endure long takes with cameras immediately in their mugs as they put subtle but clear-to-the-audience emotions on their faces. This blew my mind frankly. Communicating a nuanced emotion through a long-held closeup is one of the hardest things that can be asked of an actor (the other, in my opinion, is dancing for the camera without other actors and with looking odd). And Merlant and Haenel do it time and time again.

And as the film slowly evolves, the emotions get more and more layered. And parallel to the layers of friendship and love that grow between the artist and muse, the film does the unthinkable. As the intimacy and friendship grow, the quality of the painted grows as well--the quality of the work evolves from rough sketching, to basic re-creation of Haenel's features, to an accurate likeness, to an artful and soulful capturing of the Haenel's character. I am blown away by the artfulness and messaging in the evolution of the art department's work on the 'art' of the film.

The themes of intimacy and immediacy in art and love transcend their potential cringe-worthy worlds of cliches. It make for a surprisingly affecting rising action. Pursuing the lofty heights of true love and the perfect art rarely been so beautifully captured--and with so few words or events. To bang the film's messaging home, too, is a the compelling contrasting of Haenel's and Merlant's love by the housekeeper (Luana Bajrami) and her plight. Although pregnant, she is partnerless and seeking an abortion. Nothing in her life comes close to true love despite her being with child implies the passion of either romance or motherhood. Haenel and Merlant's romance feels greater due to this comparison.

But PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE is not just a well acted period piece that hits its mark on its chosen themes. Director Celine Sciamma directs a very moody, edgy piece with haunting use of visuals, lighting, and sound. The film's big marketing visual--Haenel walking at night with her dress on fire--ethereal visions of Haenel in her wedding dress, and a couple of absolutely flooring musical moments as simple music because frighteningly orchestral are some of 2019's strongest cinematic moments. And furthermore, the zoom shot in the final scene that pushes in on Haenel's transforming face as her facial muscles go through every phase of human joy, sadness, and regret is absolutely devastating.

Plus, the credits revealed a shocking fun tidbit of trivia. I wondered throughout why Haenel's mother looked so damned familiar. Valeria Golino. I haven't seen her in a film in ages. Needless to say, her role here is quite different from the one in HOT SHOTS! where she impressed Charlie Sheen by doing gymnastics in a tree and landed on a horse.

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