Jacob Gehman’s review published on Letterboxd:
Yooooo, this is the good shit.
A couple of weeks back I watched Blow Up, which has a photographer doing a lot of darkroom-type work. I loved watching an artist who looks so engaged with his craft. Even when he is out in the world you can see these moments when you can tell, without obvious comment or gesture, that he's seeing the world like an artist, composing shots in his head as he glances about. I loved it. Loved it.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire gives me a similar buzz, this time with a painter.
Marianne arrives at a large estate where she's been commissioned to paint the portrait of Heloise, a woman engaged to be married. This painting is key to the marriage going forward--for a reason I was never entirely sure about, but was happy enough to take on faith. The problem? Heloise doesn't want to get married and refuses to sit for the portrait. Thus, a subterfuge: Marianne is to pretend to be a companion accompanying Heloise on walks, during which time she can study her face.
There's incredible energy in this film. It's something I don't know how to quantify, but could feel in the opening credits: pencils being drawn against paper, usually just a single stroke. So simple, yet remarkably effective. It made me love Portrait of a Lady on Fire before even seeing a single character. That energy is kept up throughout the film, never slacking despite a drama/romance plot that could easily slip into languid territory. It never does, not for a damned minute.
The film's plot evolves naturally in a way that the early tensions (trying to paint this woman) give way to the latter tensions (the extremely taut love story) without a stutter in the exchange. It's so fluid. So much is communicated without overly didactic exposition. These are characters and situations we're expected to read through the nuance of their actions, not to be told about. It works so, so well.
Marianne is captivating at the outset. She's a woman in control in an era when women didn't have much agency on their own (hence the portrait being Heloise's primary tool to avoid marriage). The story starts on a row boat. She's there in her era-appropriate dress, ignoring the comments of the men. They reach something floating in the water and without hesitation or backwards glance, she jumps in--dress and all--and fishes the thing out of the water. She knows what needs to be done and does it. It's a great introduction to a character that bucks era expectations of what it means to be a woman. Actor Noemie Merlant conveys that artist's gaze--that piercing, intelligent look that makes Marianne believable in her task--yet also pivots to present someone who finds themself falling in love. Love as a passion that doesn't weaken, even though there is a certain vulnerability involved. As with everything here, it's subtle yet superb.
I could probably wax poetic about this film for longer than anyone has patience for, so I'll stop myself here. Suffice to say you should catch this while it's streaming on Hulu.