matt qt’s review published on Letterboxd:
I really struggled with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I found myself wanting to love the film at so many points, yet I was unable to fully immerse myself in the story. This is in no way a fault of Sciamma, as I thought that she gave the film picturesque visuals which made it easy to be mesmerized into the atmosphere. But beyond the visuals, I didn’t find much to be interested about in the film. I don’t want to be one of those people who complains about a film by saying “nothing happens,” but I felt there was a lot to be desired regarding the plot. Setting and visuals could only carry this movie so far with such a minimalist storyline. It all just seemed awfully dragged out, as if you were trying to stretch 45 minutes worth of plot details into a 2 hour long film. Even with the slow pace though, I still found quite a few redeeming aspects in the story.
I do not regard this film to be overrated, I just don’t think it lines up with my tastes or my mood in the moment. Similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is another acclaimed film in which I found the technical aspects to be nearly perfect, but didn’t find an inner connection to the characters or story. These are obviously two amazing films, and I was able to appreciate them without fully enjoying my viewing experience. With both films, I did feel an overarching sense of boredom while still trying to absorb the experience. You might not think that 2001 and Portrait are two easily comparable films, but I had very similar viewing experiences with them. They are definitely two films which are more of an experience than just a movie.
This film has some of the most beautiful set designs I’ve seen since The Favourite. As a period piece, the set designs of Portrait of a Lady on Fire are minimalist, yet so beautiful. The blue tinted colors inside of the house match extremely well to the aesthetic of the rest of the film. The scenes that are shot outside are even more breathtaking than ones inside the house. Every scene with Marianne and Héloïse by the water was absolutely stunning and took my breath away. These scenes were the most intimate in the whole film and Sciamma did a wonderful job of evoking the feeling of intimacy between our two main characters into the audience. But my favorite scene from the film had to be the bonfire scene. It is so beautifully choreographed and composed that it nearly brings a tear to my eye when I rewatch it. This scene is gushing with so much depth and symbolism that it is the single most important scene in driving forward the story in this film. One of the most beautifully crafted scenes ever.
Another beautiful facet of this film is the evolution of the highlighted relationship. The growth in this relationship basically serves as the entire main storyline of this movie, making the relationship the main focus of the film. Very few movies I’ve seen have ever done this, and it makes the relationship easier to analyze and pick apart. Another film I loved in which the main focus of the plot was a relationship, was 500 Days of Summer. When I tell you I can’t get that film out of my head, I mean I haven’t stopped thinking about it since the day that I watched it. There are just so many aspects to consider in the relationship in that film, and I think that Portrait is similar in that sense. It is tempting to look over Portrait of a Lady on Fire again and look for clues that led up to the ending. I didn’t really understand the whole Orpheus subtext, so maybe that would help give some more reasoning towards the ending for me.
I felt so many things during the final scene of this film. With each second of zooming, with the orchestra playing in the background, I felt myself getting more tense. This is how you do an ending, people. The ending was just so fitting for the whole feel of the film. The more I write about this film, the more I love it, though I admittedly felt pretty bored by the slow pacing. This was the most well crafted intimacy I've ever seen in a film. I’m obviously tempted to check out more of Sciamma’s work now, with Tomboy and Girlhood on my radar right now. I urge anyone who hasn’t seen Portrait, for whatever reason, to go give it a try.