Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★½

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film that actually takes its time. Every facet of it feels meticulously thought out, from the cinematography to the almost non-existent score to every miniscule line of dialogue. It draws the viewer in, not with a fast paced, rushed narrative, but with a slow, methodical one. There are these long stretches of time where seemingly nothing is really happening, but these scenes exist to immerse the viewer in both the world and the relationship between Marianne and Héloïse. Their romance is developed so naturally and fluently over the course of the story. It never falls back on tired tropes and cliches of the genre, but instead embraces raw emotion to tell its gripping story of love and regret. The conversations of this film never feel like actors reading a script; they feel like genuine conversations playing out between two people who truly have feelings for each other. The chemistry between the two main leads is at the heart of the film, with the excellent performances of Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel bringing new life into these characters. It’s story will make you feel both happiness and sadness as the two try to navigate their feelings in the 18th century. 

Besides the story and characters at play, what really sticks out about this movie is the cinematography. It’s as if the director made absolutely sure that every shot stood out on its own and didn’t blend into the crowd. Nearly every shot feels direct and purposeful in order to draw out as much personality and emotion as possible. I adored the scenes shot on the beaches and the cliffs, as they simultaneously brought a sense of scale yet claustrophobia into the mix. Adding to this sense of confinement is the minimalist score of the film. Usually a lack of music is a bad thing, but this absence of sound expertly establishes the tone and feel of the movie. The presentation on display was consistently jaw-dropping and original, only ever adding to the overall experience. 

Céline Sciamma has crafted a work of art with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Every decision going into this film felt thoughtful and intentional to the point where it’s almost effortlessly artistic. While it isn’t a film that’s going to appeal to everyone based on its slow pacing, it was that slower pacing that allowed the film to breathe and truly come into its own. I really hope Sciamma continues to develop her craft, because of this and My Life as a Zucchini are anything to go off of, she really knows what she’s doing. 

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