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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

Original Review Date: 4 March 2020

This century has given us some of the greatest on screen LGBTQ love stories. Brokeback Mountain, Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight, and Blue is the Warmest Colour are just a few of these great films. Not only are these classics of queer cinema, but are among the best ever made. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) is an instant classic that will be among the greatest romances cinema has ever seen.

Set in France during the late 1700s, a painter (Noémi Merlant) is tasked with painting the portrait of a young bride to be (Adèle Haenel) without her posing for it or knowing about. Céline Sciamma’s minimalist style in both her writing and directing allows for the organic chemistry between the leads to take control of the screen. Claire Mathon’s cinematography helps Sciamma’s vision come to life with a steady eye that examines and fully takes in this blossoming relationship that is a refreshing retreat from the male gaze that plagues so many films. We see every single nuanced moment as if it is happening in real time between Marianne and Héloïse in the same manner as one would study a painting from this era, focusing on every brush stroke and detail so specifically placed on screen for us. Nothing is rushed, and the patience of the viewer is rewarded in full once these characters finally connect on an emotional, romantic and spiritual level.

The decision not to use music in about 95% of the film makes the two moments with recorded music even more impactful. I won’t give away any of it, but the first one is arguably the greatest music moment of 2019. These moments come at extraordinary points in their journey together, making Portrait of a Lady on Fire a unique film that could only have been told with the touch and voice of a powerful filmmaker like Sciamma.

It is still baffling to me that France didn’t submit this to the Oscars for their push for Best International film. As good as the entry they chose in Les Misérables was, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the perfect film that could’ve realistically challenged Parasite in that category. Like Parasite, Portrait is an instant classic that will be studied and admired in the decades to come.

You can stream Portrait of a Lady on Fire over at Hulu in the US, and Mubi in the UK.

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