Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★★

Going into Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I was nervous about the dangers of being let down by the film’s immense hype. After the Cannes win, the Oscar-submission snub, and the most-recent Cesar Award drama, the film has been a major talking point for about 8+ months, despite only coming to my local theater last weekend. With near-unanimous praise on FilmTwitter, Letterboxd, and the like, it was a film with a lot to live up to. Thankfully, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the type of film that is able to live up to its rave reviews.

Céline Sciamma creates one of the most personal, intimate films I’ve seen, despite it being set at the end of the 18th century. The decision to go without a score is brilliant, as it could’ve easily come off as emotionally-manipulative. Instead, the performances have to carry the emotion, and it feels so much more genuine and earned. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are pitch-perfect, and Claire Mathon’s cinematography is among the very best of the year. 

Between this and The Lighthouse, 2019 was a year for isolated, coastal period pieces, but the two films couldn’t be more different; for all the quirky, masculine madness that Eggers delivers, Sciamma has created a film that is fresh, relevant, and wholly feminine. When paired with Little Women, it seems 2019 was also a year for first-rate 18th century period pieces with predominantly female casts. While Gerwig gave us inspired adaptation, Sciamma shows us something completely new. Both films are deserving of all the praise they’ve had heaped on them (outside of all-male best director awards lineups).

Aside from a few shot choices that didn’t work for me, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a triumph and among the best films of last year. A confident, bold work of lesbian filmmaking that should only see its status and esteem grow. So, so close to a five-star (five-flame) film.

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