Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Release date: February 14, 2020
Running time: 122 minutes
Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautiful, understated period drama about a painter, Marianne (Merlant) tasked with painting an elusive subject, Héloïse (Haenel), for a portrait to send to Héloïse's fiancee.  Marianne approaches this task by befriending the elusive subject, and the relationship that develops between these two forms the crux of this film.

The thing that struck me during this film was how understated it is.  The film takes place in a single manor, with three main characters, and dialogue that is pointed and sharp.  The film does not need much else, as the story and acting really drive this.  The interactions between the characters take up most of the film, and their growth really fuels the narrative.  As I mentioned, there isn't a lot of dialogue but that is a good thing.  The writers did not need to spell everything out for the viewer, nor did they feel a need to fill empty space with speech.  The words are carefully chosen, like each brush stroke in a painting, and are only included when needed.  

And one of the most amazingly understated aspects of this film is the stellar sound, or lack thereof.  This film has almost no music, and no music that is just there to fill in background for a scene, so Portrait of a Lady on Fire must use its wonderful sounds to set the mood and tone in the movie.  From creaks of an old manor, to the howling of wind or crashing of waves, to the crackling of a roaring fire, they are all beautifully reproduced and that much more effective because they are the auditory focal points of the scene.  The crackling fire was particularly effective, as it would roar up in scenes where tensions were rising.  One thing that this film highlights is the struggles of women at this time.  But the struggles and camaraderie that are exhibited are just as relevant now as they were back then.  Themes such as societal expectations, doing what one wants versus what is expected, and the support that is needed to succeed are all present here.  And in telling this story, the film conveys some very strong and conflicting emotions perfectly.  

However, this film being understated is both a blessing and a curse.  The movie has so much subtle action but it also takes a while to get going.  This film feels like it doesn't actually get moving until about an hour into it.  Like a painter painting its subject, it needs time to trace out the area before diving in.  Additionally, there are some strange aspects that don't really make sense, like a vision that one of the characters continues to have.  And for a movie that develops so wonderfully, the ending is unsatisfying and feels like it comes too quickly.  

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an understated masterpiece, with wonderful acting, superb sounds throughout, and a story that will paint a wonderful movie picture for you.  

Watch it

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