Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a special film. Featuring Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant as a young woman about to be wed against her will and the painter assigned to paint a portrait of her, both actors deliver some of the best performances in recent memory, somehow with incredibly little dialogue. In fact, much of the film similarly relies on solely music and visuals to tell its story and convey emotion. The characters seldom say what they mean, but the film endears you to both so well that you feel every bit of emotion nonetheless. Portrait asks the audience to be patient; by standard definition, not too much happens in the first two acts, but the film, while at times slow, never outright bores. There’s always a lingering feeling of excitement on screen, and the reward to getting through the first two acts is immense. The film has an ending so poignant and affecting that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what about it makes it so effective; it has to be seen (and heard!) to be believed. From a technical perspective, Portrait is a masterclass in how to use both music and cinematography. Past looking eye-wateringly gorgeous, the cinematography perfectly captures the joy, pain, and love that the characters feel, as does the music. Music is used sparingly but effectively, so whenever it starts playing, the feeling it brings is amplified and it further envelops and immerses you into the world of the character. My sole gripe with the film is that it personally lost me a little by the end of the second act, but it’s 100% recovered by its powerhouse of an ending.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an unforgettable experience of a film, not only showcasing some of the best recent performances, direction, cinematography, and music, but having a personality, life, and spark entirely of its own.