Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★★

During the late 1700s, Marianne, an artist-for-hire played by Noémie Merlant, arrives at an island in Brittany, where she has been commissioned to paint a dignified wedding portrait of Héloïse, who has just left a convent and is about to enter an arranged marriage to a nobleman in Milan. This assignment is complicated by the fact that Héloïse, played by Adèle Haenel, is unwilling to be confined to a marriage, and, as such, has refused to pose for such paintings in the past. Under the guise of a walking companion, Marianne accompanies the bride-to-be on walks around the island shore while observing her features during the day in order to work on the painting each night. Over a span of days, these two women develop a mutual trust that blossoms into an intimate romance, but Marianne's inevitable completion of the portrait will spell the end of this blissful freedom for both of them.

The 2019 French drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which earned accolades at last year's Cannes Film Festival for its director, Céline Sciamma, before receiving a U.S. release this year, is one of the most visually entrancing movies that I have seen in recent memory. Thanks to the cinematography of Claire Mathon and to some incredible location sets, each still frame represents a work of art all its own. This is a luxuriously-paced outing, with mostly dialogue-free passages during its 121-minute run time, but I was on the edge of my seat throughout the story because of the way that it depicts an escalation towards forbidden love simply by way of mutual glances and body language.

I was compelled to see Portrait of a Lady on Fire after reading the onslaught of glowing reviews from trusted sources, and, as I was leaving the theater after today's showing at an independent cinema here in Atlanta, I saw three separate middle-aged men crying as they departed. This is the rare sort of historical period film that weaves its spell on viewers who, like me, may not, on first assumption, be the target audience. I was reminded several times of another quietly affecting art-themed screen story, Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003), which starred Scarlett Johansson in the titular role, but this new work outdistances that predecessor because of its depiction of a first love that, confined to secrecy, can only exist for a painfully short time.

Since I have a novice interest in photography, I found this images-first dialogue-second film to be one of the best from this past year, and I am glad that I took the time to see it on a big theater screen instead of settling for a television image in my living room. The narrative does squeeze some heady content into its otherwise simple story, in the forms of Greek mythology references and a touching side plot involving the termination of a pregnancy, but its core subject matter is devoted to externalizing universally relatable emotions between its two main characters in the way of a painter who has only a canvas, instead of written words, with which to explore the nature of a person posing for a still image.

This movie has my highest recommendation because it is an open-handed invitation for viewers to enjoy what is experienced by the two leads, a fleeting time of beauty away from the expectations and pressures of reality.

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