Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★½

Slow, but hypnotic. Quiet, but impactful. Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s relaxed pace appears damaging early on. We know time is finite for its characters, so the relaxed speed at which it seems to want to get us through their story feels frustrating.

But then, by the time the film reaches its stunning final half hour, you realise how effective the lead up has been. It’s the classic case of immersion so subtle you don’t feel its impact until it’s too late. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel give tender performances, a love felt with stolen glances and the swiftest and softest of gestures. Céline Sciamma’s direction is restrained until it isn’t, she knows when to hold back and let her actors carry the scene and when to increase her presence - a particular sequence set around a bonfire finds her at her most thrillingly noticeable.

The film’s peak moment comes at the very end though, in a triumphant final shot that holds for what feels like an eternity but still seems to pass too quick. The music builds, the camera tightens, and suddenly you feel the dagger in your heart that’s been there since the very first scene - it just took the bravura ending to make you realise.

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