Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020) – Film Review

A Beautiful & Moving Film

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautiful film. It’s a cleverly written, gorgeously shot picture that takes a very simple concept, shines a spotlight on three leading ladies and weaves this around a premise that ingeniously changes the way you look at things by the end of the 2 hour run-time.

With an unusual use of colour, a solid sound design and some lingering long shots, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is quite simply a stunning work of art and one that rewards your patience across its slow-burn story to deliver something pretty thought provoking and breathtaking by the end.

The story itself takes place during the 18th Century on an isolated island. Painter Marianne arrives and is given a very simple task – paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse before her upcoming wedding. The catch? She can’t know about it and she needs to do this by memory.

It’s a simple enough premise and one that immediately engages you to see this infamous lady’s facial features, paying particular attention to things you normally wouldn’t. Without spoiling too much, the film itself takes an unusual turn during the second act and what begins as a simple drama quickly spins into a much more beautiful and touching story about femininity, sisterhood and love.

What’s particularly impressive here though is the way Portrait of a Lady on Fire plays with colour and themes throughout the picture. Many scenes stick rigidly to the primary colours of a palette – red, blue and yellow – with green remaining strictly for Héloïse only.

As the film progresses, these colours change and evolve, with most of the characters adopting a more royal and subdued blue compared to their more vibrant yellow or reds. It’s a subtle move but one that works incredibly well. Late on, one particular scene pans across a room and every character is wearing one of these three colours and although early on you wouldn’t think much of this, having learnt more about this painter and the two other girls, there’s a newfound appreciation for this use of colour toward the end that offers up a wholly unique and interesting perspective.

With the theme of paintings and seeing things from an artist’s point of view, these moments feel well-earned and give you a real appreciation for what a painter goes through during the creative process.

This evolution of ideas spills over to the cinematography and camera work too, with multiple long shots and fleeting shots of paintings and colours being splashed across the canvas. Lingering shots between the two central females help to add depth to their personas while the camera positioning makes for a very interesting case study too.

Early on the characters are predominantly shot from behind, with point of view scenes remaining guarded against the appearance of our characters. The forward-facing shots are fleeting but yet as the film progresses, we see more of our three females head-on and this ultimately translates across to their personalities opening up to something far more beautiful.

Portrait isn’t perfect and the drawn out scenes of silence, combined with the constant use of long shots, make this a test of patience at times to get through, especially during the opening act where everything feels relatively unknown and the full extent of the story is yet to be unveiled.

It’s these moments that will make or break the picture for you and aside from its artistic elements (which are fantastic and to be commended unto itself), the story doesn’t really get going until quite a way into the film. If you can stick with this one though, you’re definitely rewarded with an enthralling tale.

We joke a lot about mainstream cinema being dead but shining examples like this and Parasite are enough to breathe life into this art-form and remind us that yes, cinema is alive and well. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautifully told, slow-burn story about love and sisterhood. It’s an example of how to tell an empowering story about women and emotionally move both sexes in the process.

From a blank canvas, Portrait meticulously draws out a beautiful painting that could easily sit among other great works in a gallery. It’s a wonderful film, one that effortlessly paints a picture you can admire for years to come.

 


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