Portrait of a Lady on Fire Review

Cast: Noemie Merlat, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golina

Director: Celine Sciamma


Well it only took seven weekends, but we finally have our first truly excellent movie of 2020.  Sure it’s technically a 2019 release that found its footing this year, but regardless it’s still easily one of the best movies I’ve seen in the last few months.  This may be the first time a movie has been released on Valentine’s Day that actually dealt with true love and at the same time had real, thoughtful consequences.  A borderline masterpiece when it’s all said and done, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is as close to a must-see movie as you’ll get this early in the year.

The film follows Marianne (Merlat), an aspiring painter who is commissioned to work on the portrait of Heloise (Haenel), an aristocrat who has no desire to be painted.  As the two spend more time together, they begin to grow closer and eventually form a passionate romantic relationship.  Knowing that their love cannot last forever, the two must enjoy the limited time they have together while understanding the forbidden elements of their lives.  For outside perspective, if you liked Call Me By Your Name, then there’s a very strong chance that you’ll like Portrait of a Lady on Fire.  From a purely movie-making perspective, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is made with a level of passion and dedication that we rarely see in movies.  From the score, editing, and cinematography, you can tell that every moment of this movie was made with painstaking planning and detail and credit must be given to Sciamma for capturing our attention with these elements.  While Sciamma did a phenomenal job of creating an environment for the actresses to succeed, it’s ultimately up to them to carry the story to the end and give us an emotional investment that’s worth it.  Luckily, Merlat and Haenel give performances that even the most homophobic viewer will find to be admirable.  Over the course of 120 minutes, we see two women whose journey may be surrounded by class and societal barriers, but is ultimately about love and the sacrifices we make for it.  Much like Call Me By Your Name, the love is the vessel of the story and the surrounding elements are there to show how even though their time together will eventually end, their time spent will stay with them for the rest of their lives.  This is extremely obvious as the movie enters its final act and presents a somber yet realistic atmosphere that completely captures what these women are feeling.  Their love may be forbidden, but it’s still a love that we can understand and identify with.  Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t something I usually expect in the early stages of the year, but with the careful, structured approach that Sciamma took, it’s no surprise that there’s a higher level of quality found here than in other February releases.  Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the type of foreign-language movie that translates itself with its message and is something everyone can understand at its very core.

Overall, Portrait of a Lady on Fire will never have any real mainstream appeal, but those who do watch it will greatly appreciate their time spent here.  Sciamma took the very basics of filmmaking and elevated them in a way that we don’t see very often and hopefully she will serve as an inspiration for future directors around the world.  I don’t know how this didn’t get a nomination for Best International Film at the Academy Awards, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire is proof you don’t need an award to be recognized as an absolutely stunning movie.

Overall Score: 8.5/10

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