Justin Peterson’s review published on Letterboxd:
Criterion Collection Spine #1034
(Foreign language film - French)
Talk about getting hung up on an old flame.
"Is that how you see me? ... It's not only me ... What do you mean, not only you? ... There are rules, conventions, ideas ... You mean there's no life? No presence? ... Your presence is made up of fleeting moments that may lack truth ... Not everything is fleeting. Some feelings are deep. The fact it isn't close to me, that I can understand. But I find it sad it isn't close to you."
The cynic in me thinks: This was an overly slow and subtle feminine period piece version of 'Call Me By Your Name' (CMBYN).
The optimist in me thinks: Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a slow and eloquent examination of two people falling in love, that is characterized by the excellent metaphor of an artist capturing the soul of their model within a painting.
And as usual, my ultimate opinion falls somewhere in between with how I liked the artistic stylizations of the story, but felt like it was a bit too drawn out. I know a lot of people appreciate when films take their time to gradually develop a relationship, but unfortunately I never felt invested enough to want to buy into that amount of melodrama.
The main aspects I did really appreciate from Portrait of a Lady on Fire was how the story was framed around the creation of the painting, and the stylistic accents that were used along the way. I enjoyed the painter character Marianne, and it was fascinating to watch her get started on a portrait and blend the colors. But the very frowny faced and stubborn 'aka' complex character of Héloïse, was obviously not as likable. But then again she was being difficult because of her reluctance to having to get married, so I suppose I should have felt more empathetic about that.
- In addition to the amazing painting transitions we see within Héloïse's portrait .... possibly the even more powerful scene is when Marianne captures the delicate care Héloïse shows while assisting a servant with her abortion
- The crashing waves against the beach of the island they are on was ideal for this dramatic romance
- It just dawned on me how Marianne having to paint Héloïse from memory was an interesting way of presenting the theme of there being more to a person than what is shown on the surface level
- The stunningly haunting visions Marianne has of Héloïse were a great touch, which reminded me of the same element from 'Phantom Thread'. And it did not click for me until later on that these visions symbolized Marianne's dread over the inevitability that she would lose Héloïse as a result of her upcoming marriage
- I really enjoyed the small yet powerful use of music that was used on just a few occasions, including that gripping scene of the final time Marianne saw Héloïse in the opera house. In the scene, Héloïse hears the same storm inspired music that Marianne played for during their time together, which brings Héloïse to tears. (This moment was also very reminiscent of Timothée Chalamet's iconic cry from CMBYN)
- Finally, I never think I have cared about this before, but I would have preferred if the film had a glossier aesthetic over the picture being so flat and muted
Overall Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a very well made tragic romance with some good depth and style, but the slow and subtle aspects did not fully click for me on my initial viewing.
Thanks for reading.
Happy movie watching ... Cheers!