WowMIKEWow’s review published on Letterboxd:
Portrait of a Lady on Fire: I Heard You Paint Spouses
I've been hearing about this one for a good...several months, at least. I honestly think it's been more than half a year now that this became THE festival darling that literally nobody could shut up about, other than Parasite maybe. And while Parasite went on to be shown at multiple theaters near me (and also won a couple of awards or something), Portrait of a Lady on Fire has been bizarrely elusive until just a week ago. It's technically a 2019 movie, but it only got its wide release at the tail end of last month, and even then I had to go well out of town to see it!
Still, worth it. Well worth it. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a rapturous romance, a costume drama that actually pays more attention to the drama side of things than the costumes (it's always a hit more miss on that front with these types of movies). It has to do with Marianne, an artist who is hired by a noblewoman to paint a portrait of her daughter, Héloïse, without her catching on to what's happening (they've already tried with a male painter, and it didn't work out). It's important that a portrait be painted, as Héloïse is to be married to an Italian nobleman, and it is the custom of the time to present commemorative portraits and present them to the husband-to-be.
What time is that? Well, Wikipedia helpfully informs me that the film takes place "at the end of the eighteenth century," but other than that the film leaves us more or less unmoored. This is a film in a bubble, removed from time, where the two (really three) main characters exist at the center of each other's universes. In a weird way, I was reminded of 2019's other inescapably big film, Joker, which took place "kind of in the '80s" but lacked any real time period signifiers beyond a general feel.
So Marianne's job is to spend time with Héloïse during the day (Héloïse thinks she's there as a companion for walks), during which time she observes her, and then attempt to paint her portrait from memory at night. This is tremendously clever, as through Marianne's eyes (and some delightfully clever camerawork) we see Héloïse as she does, and we get to know her as she does. We feel the connection between them being formed in real time.
There's this moment; it's the first "moment" between them, their first walk. Héloïse is in front, with Marianne trailing behind. She's not seen Héloïse's face yet. All of a sudden, Héloïse breaks into a run. She's sprinting towards the cliffside. Earlier, we were told by Héloïse's mother and Sophie, the maid, that Héloïse's sister was meant to be engaged to the same Italian nobleman, until she committed suicide. We, and Marianne, clearly fear the worst and race after her. Héloïse runs and runs, until she stops right at the edge of the cliff, and turns around, and we see her.
"I've always thought of doing that," she says.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire continues in this style for the next two hours, with scene after scene of these little exchanges, meaningful words, these furtive looks. So many furtive looks, to the point where I almost expected "Furtive Looks.......itself" to play during the end credits. I'll say this; Portrait of a Lady on Fire really did succeed at immersing me, without I think a single line of exposition, just what it is to be an artist, at least in that time. Her process of trying to find something to latch onto when painting Héloïse, trying to capture her spirit, is dramatized brilliantly and cleanly.
But then, basically everything is dramatized brilliantly in this movie. There's a whole subplot - it's basically the main plot for a while - where Sophie becomes the principal character, and the two of them have to assist her in getting an abortion. This culminates in a genuinely surprising moment of grace, one which all three characters seem in some way aware of the importance of.
Music plays an important role here, too. There's almost no incidental music whatsoever; the one big "music moment" is happening in the world of the movie, and it's the ancient, haunting song you heard in all the trailers (this is exactly like what happened in 1917, where the lovely trailer song actually ended up being a critical scene in the movie, and the song was actually being sung in the movie)
The mark of a true masterpiece is how it can create a collection of characters that feel real. I know, on some level, that these two characters don't actually exist, and aren't actually in love, I don't think? Not in the 1700s at least. I know this, but I scarcely believe it. Portrait of a Lady on Fire was hyped to no end, and despite my best intentions, I went in with major expectations, having been told again and again that what I was about to see would rock my core. Months and months of buildup...and you can consider my core rocked.