Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★

Céline Sciamma never wants to rest on one feeling or one impression, instead finding balances ranging from calm and stable, to completely altering a sequence entirely. So many instances of silence in this film shift their scenes entirely, with more active uses of sound seeing themselves as a intense contrast to what came before. So much of this film feels really mindful and clever, despite not always feeling as obvious as arthouse can sometimes come across.

Sciamma's focus on the stoic faces of her actors makes for some brilliant subtleties in each performance. Noémie Merlant especially has this power to her prescence that only comes around every so often in cinema, which is only made better by how careful Sciamma is in emphasizing it. And Sciamma's more tasteful, more reluctant reflections of romance only make those feelings more explosive when they are seen in even the smallest gestures. So much of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is speaking in these gestures, with a vivid, sometimes conflicting atmosphere to coincide.

I do wish Sciamma went a step further in her sense of patience, with her greatest images falling into the same rhythm as her more visually downplayed moments. The pace of the overall film is really wonderful, but I do wish individual shots had a more careful consideration to their length. Easy examples of this fully realized include Theo Angelopoulos and Marguerite Duras, though their style might be a bit too left-field for a film this quiet and this minimal. But I still think the strengths of this film could have been better polished to either showcase her most brilliant moments in a flurry, or in observation less tethered to her edits. Granted, the film is superbly edited at times, I only wish it went the extra mile and knew when the edit was a distraction rather than an emphasis.

But I don't seek to tear the film down for some unfair comparables. Portrait of a Lady on Fire might sometimes resemble other films (better or worse than itself), but it does culminate into something rather unique and memorable purely in its naturalistic, sombrely extravagant sequences. Sciamma gives emotions their time to grow and her themes a chance to exist in ambiguity rather than showing their intentions so early and so often. Part of Sciamma's brilliance here is keeping things quiet while still being so well understood. The importance of small expressions, of strange reactions, of silence, and of the world; how it can act as a response to feeling.

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