Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

First things first, let's applaud Letterboxd for committing to the bit and making the stars little fires. While we're at it, keep the applause going for every damn person involved in this film, which somehow, impossibly, lives up to the hype.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is immaculately crafted on every level. I knew the acting would be great, and I had heard raves about Céline Sciamma's dreamlike, sweepingly romantic, and erotic direction. But no one told me about the sound design! This is a film that gets by without any non-diegetic music, but it's hardly a quiet film: every scene is filled the brim with the shush of the breeze, or the crashing of waves, or the clinking of glasses, or the rustling of dresses. Rarely has sound been so artfully managed to craft the world of the story.

The story itself is simple enough: a painter falls in love with her subject. Really, though, the film is about an idyllic, but incredibly fragile world created by these women in the absence men. This is illustrated, for instance, in the (slightly underbaked) subplot about an abortion - the immediate, almost unspoken support is startling only because it seems to be so rare in stories about this topic.

As the film pushes on, into the stirring, incredibly strong middle section, and then into the heartbreaking end, we are treated to what is clearly already one of cinema's great love stories. The spell is only broken when a man arrives, his presence so startling and disruptive that I nearly jumped out of my chair. Along the way, we are treated to a feast of quick glances, lingering touches, and genuinely great paintings.

Quibbles? Sure. I think the film has one too many codas, and the framing device feels unnecessary. But these are silly complaints in the face of such artful beauty. Bless Hulu for surprising us with this one, otherwise I would have had to wait for Criterion's release in June (I'll definitely still be picking it up).

Four and a half hauntingly surreal bonfires out of five.