Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★

Damn near critic-proof, in that it’s fantastic on a technical level (that merging profile shot on the cliffside is just **chef’s kiss**), and any criticisms lobbed at it from a storytelling perspective almost have built-in retorts. Why does the buildup to this romance feel so sterile and dull? Because within the context of an 18th century period piece, the most that can be afforded are the stolen glances and shot-reverse-shot framework that come with the territory. You don’t want the camera to leer, but don’t you want it to lust a bit, if not for the body then for the essence of beauty or freedom that surrounds a person? Sciamma mostly works around this with the framing device of memory/art as an objective form of observation (it also serves to explain why scenes feel so brief ((or in my harsher opinion, truncated)) in the first half), but again, it feels like a built-in explanation that only works in retrospect. In the moment, I didn’t feel the titular fire between these two women until nearly the closing quarter; I didn’t feel the weight of their looks or their touches, or the growing dread of their fleeting time together; hell, I didn’t even find these women to be particularly interesting characters at all, despite great performances from the leads. I also find it odd that there’s such a conscious decision to leave the film largely scoreless, and yet the two best moments of the film are so affecting precisely because there’s enough confidence to let music help carry the emotional load, and I find it odd that Sciamma feels the need to cram some semblance of that hopeless romance in the...second ending? Third ending? I can’t quite remember how many there are, but regardless, she could have just as easily and effectively achieved this injection of life in little moments throughout the film.

I don’t know, man—this might hit better on a rewatch, but I also don’t see it being a film that leaves you with a compulsion to watch it again, whereas the atmosphere and romance of something like Call Me By Your Name might. There’s just not enough life here. And I guess that’s the point.

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