Movie #57 2020: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

In any other circumstance, I would strongly encourage everyone to go see this on the big screen. But guess what? There’s an apocalypse.

I was fortunate enough to see this at HOME in Manchester, which is an arts, theatre and film centre for those of you who are unaware of it. Yes, I’m bragging.

I’m bragging because this film is utterly miraculous. If Rear Window was my favourite classic movie so far this year, then Portrait of a Lady on Fire is definitely my favourite new release of the last decade.

There is so much to say about Portrait that I’m positive there will be entire Film Studies theses written on it in the near future, so it’s difficult to know where to start. One of the most striking takeaways I had from this movie was the use of music. This is a movie which is just over two hours long, yet only uses two pieces of music throughout the entire thing. That’s including the score (or lack of). I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen another movie that makes that decision. But here, it is the correct decision. The silent voids are not filled with any orchestral pieces, making the viewer fully immersed in what is happening on screen.

Honestly, this is one of the best love stories I’ve ever seen in the cinematic medium. Everyone involved gives such a brilliant, believable performance that it hit me like a ton of bricks. After watching it, I found out that the film’s director (Céline Sciamma) was actually dating one of the lead actresses (Adèle Haenel, who plays Héloïse in the movie) at the time of filming, so I’m sure that was a little awkward. However, it could have also perhaps contributed to what makes this so excellent; it’s almost as if Sciamma projects her love for her girlfriend onto what’s happening through her camera lens, and it is simply a joy to see.

The plot itself is perfectly worked, and laid out to perfection. Sciamma uses the fact that her main protagonist, Marianne, (Noémie Merlant) is a painter so effectively, using close-ups of Héloïse’s face as if the viewers themselves are painting her. Plot devices such as this serve to engross the viewer immediately, as it is almost like you are in the same room as these characters. Not only that, but there are scenes where you simply get to sit and watch Marianne paint, which is so calming in a weird way.

Not only that, but the cinematography is utterly gorgeous. Some of the best I have seen so far this year. There are sweeping shots of snow-topped mountains, cameras chasing the lead characters through strong gales of wind as their hair flails wildly behind them, and costumes that are so striking against the pure white backdrops of some of the sequences. The movie itself is even more beautiful than Marianne’s paintings.

To tell you the truth, I’ve watched exactly 35 films since I watched Portrait. And not a single one of them has come even close to being as good as this.

Sadly, Portrait of a Lady on Fire‘s UK theatrical release was cut short due to COVID-19. The DVD is set to be released on June 8th, 2020.

TQR Category Ratings:

Costume & Set Design: 
Overall Rating: 


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