Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★★

In high school, in lieu of getting a real job (a pursuit I strive to observe to this day), I made money by drawing caricatures. It started with a quick sketch I did of one of my mom’s friends, and after that, word spread and I had more commissions than I could field, culminating in a summer gig at an amusement park in Kansas City.

Someone once described cartoonists as artists who know all the shortcuts, which I think is generally true, though I never considered myself an artist at that time. Back then, I regarded caricaturists as the fry cooks of the art world, but reflecting on my time in the trenches all those years ago, my opinion is considerably less dismissive. In ten minutes, you’re expected to capture the essence of a complete stranger. To exaggerate their perceived flaws, but in a way that isn’t unflattering. Your drawing must appeal to its subject and (paradoxically) provide a source of derision for those who know them best. More often than not, your job is basically to make Paul Giamatti look like Ryan Gosling. 

Upon completion, the finished work is presented to the subject, which can be an intensely personal experience for them, and your skill is unsparingly assessed as you sit there pretending to organize your pens or take a sip from your empty water bottle. While caricature work doesn’t demand the technical expertise of other art forms, it does require a measure of discipline (or what some may refer to as talent), a keen eye, a sense of humor, and the ability to perform - and to a certain degree, entertain - under pressure.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, though focused on a more sophisticated and respected medium, does a brilliant job of incorporating the plight of the artist, the anxieties and frustrations, into a sweeping story of forbidden intimacy and obsession. The creative process is so viscerally illuminated (always in service to the story) that it was all I could do not to grab a pencil and start sketching! Although I’ve slotted Robert Egger’s The Lighthouse into my top spot of the year (chiefly as a reward for appealing so neatly to my own quirky sensibilities), make no mistake, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the best film of 2019.

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