2019, Movies

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019, Celine Sciamma)

This is a slow burn of a romance set in an absolutely gorgeous setting off the coast of Brittany during the 18th century. It’s an impressive film with two pretty stellar performances by the leads.

I like movies that take their time and this is one of those films. I forgot what it was about and didn’t even know I was watching a romance for a fairly long time. It is well-paced, and the relationship unfolds naturally. The film feels like it is set over a much longer period than the two-ish weeks its set over.

The film is relatively austere; there is no score – something I love – and the setting is mostly in an unadorned chateau. (But it’s in this gorgeous setting, and the colour palette is really nice.) There’s possibly a bit of a “romantic Bergman” vibe, but that could come from the fact that I’ve been watching a few Bergmans lately. (Also, it’s set on an island! So very Bergman.) It is a very European film in its aesthetic.

The two lead actors are pretty phenomenal. They don’t have that many lines for how long they are on screen and how long the film is, and they convey so much through their faces and body movements. It’s one of those movies that might have succeeded if just one of the two of them did an excellent job, but they both do.

There’s also a fascinating subplot involving the maid, which makes the film more than just its romance storyline. It adds to the film and makes the whole story richer. I think this film is much greater for this subplot.

One quibble is that I’m honestly not sure if there actually would be a woman portrait painter in France at the time doing these kind of house calls. Maybe it’s a real thing, but I have no idea. My other quibble is the denouement, which feels so different from the rest of the film. That is likely a deliberate choice, but I found it a little disorienting. And I felt like the last shot lingered slightly longer than it needed to.

Anyway, it’s a pretty well-executed romance. I almost feel like I’m underrating it.


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