Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★★

Sometimes I need to be reminded how compelling stillness can be. "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is never anything less than gripping. I have seen stories about slowly building romances, even between people of the same sex. I have witnessed many a costume drama (and I recall the one-two punch of "Amadeus" and "Dangerous Liasons" when I was in elementary/middle school that got me instantly hooked on this massively underrated genre). So "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" wouldn't seem to offer me anything that I hadn't seen somewhere else previously.

But it all felt fresh and novel, even if it wasn't if one judged by its description or actual plot. But sometimes plot is one of the least important elements of a film, as it is here. Sometimes a director simply finds a way to grip you and hold you spellbound for two hours, even when nothing particularly exciting seems to be happening. I put off seeing this movie for a while, though I was always intrigued, because that plot description didn't sound terribly amazing and it seemed like a movie that would be slow. Because of the praise, I knew that it would be good. I knew it would be one of those movies where I put it off forever (I had the disc from Netflix sitting around for over a month) and then it blows me away when I finally catch up with it and, yeah, that's exactly what this is. It is slow but mesmerizing.

I don't even know what exactly makes it mesmerizing. The visual fabric of the film is certainly sumptuous and engrossing. The performances are definitely strong. The pacing, though slow by traditional standards, is bewitching and, frankly, perfect. All of these things are fantastic, but I've seen a lot of movies that boasted these elements but did not work their way under my skin as this one does. Some movies like this feel like a chore. Sometimes that chore is rewarding. Sometimes it is not. But "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" isn't a chore. It is a rich, emotionally enveloping experience that unfolds effortlessly and rapturously and kept me enthralled at every moment. When I complain that a movie is slow, it is because there isn't enough story to keep me engaged and the filmmaker didn't do enough to bewitch me, such as the way I felt while watching "Barry Lyndon" (a movie I need to revisit because that film is currently regarded as one of Kubrick's best films and my one viewing of it made me feel like I was on the outside looking in). "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" immersed me in its world and characters. It made me understand the concerns and feelings of being a woman as well as any film I can recall. It is about women being left alone to their own devices and taking power for themselves while no man is watching, during a time when women had little or no agency to live their lives as they see fit. It feels like a last burst of freedom for its characters before they are imprisoned within the roles that society forces upon them. Sciamma brilliantly communicates this feeling, even to a dumb man like myself, and causes me to empathize and identify with these women to such a degree that these concerns and epiphanies and emotional reveries become my own. I could not precisely pinpoint how these things are achieved, but by some beautiful and invisible alchemy they ARE achieved and deeply felt by myself. The sumptuous visuals and the lack of a score (the music that we experience in this film is diagetic, and that is another brilliant touch that most filmmakers wouldn't have thought of) and the subtle but often devastating performances all contribute to this, but don't quite explain why the film is so damned riveting. Again, Sciamma's work is magnificent and organic, as is every element of the film. She uses stillness in a way that made me lean deeper into the film and the stillness gives way to increasingly more motion as the emotions of the film's characters become more vivid and passionate.

It was delightful to see Valeria Golina in a film again as well. I didn't know she was in this, and discovering her within it was a great surprise (that I have now ruined for the rest of you, sorry). I've always appreciated her in movies such as "Rain Man" and "Big Top Pee Wee" and the "Hot Shots" movies, and she strikes a different but equally effective tone within this film. She's not the best performer here (that would be the two leads, Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel) but I was just happy to see her again. Feels like she hasn't been in a movie in decades.

Maybe my words will help someone else prioritize this film, but probably not. I read a lot of rapturous reviews of this film and I still chose flashy garbage over it for a year. But that is who I am, for better and usually for worse. I could make a New Years resolution to change this aspect of myself...but it probably won't happen and I know myself well enough by this point to KNOW that it won't happen. Oh well, there's nothing wrong with thinking that a movie is going to be the equivalent of eating my vegetables and then taking that first bite and realizing how flavorful and incredible those vegetables are.

That reminds me: I should eat more vegetables too.

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