Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★½

Watched as a double-feature with Persona.

Does anyone flog themselves for not seeing a film in theaters after watching it at home for the first time? Neither do I, mostly because I don't have a whip readily available.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, while not as immense as Parasite (which I seriously need to rewatch someday, my initial review seems so quaint now), made a big splash at Cannes and became a Letterboxd sensation throughout 2019. Currently sitting at #13 in the list of Letterboxd's highest-rated films months after it's release, it's clear that this film will stay in the realm of discussion for a while, which is excellent for two reasons. First being that I won't feel as late to the party as other films, and more importantly, because Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an astounding film.

While the core of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a simple love story, Céline Sciamma merely uses that as a foundation for a thematically complex film about art, history, and the female experience as a whole. Even taking the central relationship out of the equation, the side plot of the servant girl Sophie dealing with an unwanted pregnancy still has plenty to contemplate over as she gets held back by her gender as well as her status. Like always, making thematic connections on a first watch is spotty (at least for me), so I'm not going to pretend I have all the answers; however, with the various lenses to look at this film, I'd prefer not to anyway.

Regardless of theme, Céline Sciamma succeeds in portraying this relationship as honestly as possible. It's a slow burner that gradually burns with passion, even as the art of painting requires its model to display a frozen pose. By the one hour mark, Portrait of a Lady on Fire no longer felt like a piece of cinema; instead, an observation of a relationship slowly blooming and intensifying. Not once did this film stoop to unrealistic dialogue, performance, or even a musical score outside of the film's universe. Each scene felt natural with authentic dialogue and delivery at every turn.

At every turn, Portrait of a Lady on Fire also has colorful cinematography that served the perfect reminder of why I should've seen this on the big screen. Visual elements from Bergman and Nykvist seep onto the frames with the added touches of modern-day technology, an 8K camera used during production to capture the depth each image needed. With much of the film using natural light, the shades of many of the scenes are flooring at points. It sounds how it looks too, the removal of any traditional score allows this film's soundscape to absorb the viewer into the film, particularly the crackling of flames during the first half.

All and all, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film rooted in the presentation of classic cinema, yet it's a narrative and visual experience that could only exist in the present. Even if this film didn't affect me emotionally as it did for so many others, I'd be lying if I said this film didn't wow me throughout. If someone asked me which film from last year would continue to stay relevant in the conversation decades after its release, this would be a prime candidate for that answer. Stay bright, Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

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