David Mitchell-Baker’s review published on Letterboxd:
"You were right. I am scared. Do all lovers feel they're inventing something? I know the gestures. I imagined it all, waiting for you."
"You dreamt of me?"
"No. I thought of you."
Just when I thought I'd seen the best that a cinematic romance can be, Celine Sciamma's Portait of a Lady on Fire comes along and hits me straight in the heart.
I've not seen a film before that so perfectly portrays the significance, intimacy and beauty of the simple act of looking, just fixating on something or someone and seeing all that they are and admiring every faucet of it. This is a tale of two lovers who wholly adore and understand every inch of one another, to watch them together feels intrusive, but how better would we understand this unique, passionate bond that they share? Every new look has a deeper meaning, every gesture, every word spoken, every moment that the camera stays on them for a split second longer than we would expect, it all deepens this fascinating, beautiful bond between Marianne and Héloïse. Sciamma directs all of it to perfection, not a wasted moment or pointless gesture to be found.
Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are incredible together, both giving contained, measured performances in differing ways; whilst Merlant is tightly wound and withholding through fear of rejection, Haenel is boarded up and temperamental through fear of what she knows is to come for her, an inescapable destiny that she wishes to put off forever. The two communicate so much through their eyes alone, Merlant has these brown, doey eyes that long and yearn for what she sees, whereas Haenel has sharp, piercing blue eyes that cut through any veneer cast and seem to understand any and every intent that a person or their action has. They are remarkable performers, their chemistry together is breathtakingly beautiful, not only as they simply witness one another, but also as they deliver the stunningly written dialogue about time, memory and the impact that their love for one another has.
As with films like Punch-Drunk Love, you could watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire on mute and still understand everything that is going on, such is the precision and intent of the cinematography. The camera constantly captures the faces of the characters front and centre, meaning that every slight change in expression tells its own story, the variety of movements and positionings place us perfectly within this world at all times, letting us experience the pure emotion of the film much the same as the characters.
I could go on and on about the metaphors, symbolism and deeper meanings to many aspects of this film, but there is simply too much to discuss. There will be books written on this film, it will studied, justifiably so, for years to come. My heart has been thoroughly put through the ringer by Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and yet somehow I wouldn't have it any other way.