Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★

A film that is deeply in love with the women at its center, and in love with the idea of their love. It’s the type of rare film that has no desire and no space to explore the influence of men in their lives - any pain and conflict in this story is derived less from external forces and more from pure, unencumbered longing. That’s refreshing, to say the least. It’s also as immaculately crafted of a production as you’d expect - the colors are lush and vibrant without being overpowering, muted when they need to be and powerfully vivid in certain key moments. The use of music, and lack thereof, is striking and calculated in its effect. The performances are both stellar.

It has its faults - the film leans almost too heavily into the subtext of every movement and every glance, resulting in the audience being placed at a bit of a distance early on. It takes a while to get into it, and the film oftentimes relies on the strength of the performances more so than the strength of the story around them. The symbolism and metaphors also get way too French art film-y for my taste, and certain moments feel manufactured for symbolic resonance rather than organically developed.

But in any case, a lot of that can be forgiven because Sciamma has a clear vision and ambition for this story that can be seen in most every frame. Where the film stands out is in putting artist and subject on equal ground - each action has an equal reaction, and there’s a playfulness that slowly but surely envelops the central relationship. The dynamic is less about any form of passivity or dominance and more about the two of them feeling each other out, knowing there’s an expiration date but driven by an overwhelming curiosity and desire. However, it’s not until the final fifteen minutes or so when the film truly clicks into place, most notably in as searing a final shot as you will ever see. Every emotion and stylistic choice in the film culminates in a heart-pounding final moment, one that is thrilling and deeply intimate in equal measure. It tells its own story in and of itself, ruminating on all that is loved and lost as it shatters and puts your heart back together.


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