Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019): TIFF Film Review
This review was filed from the Toronto International Film Festival.
"I've dreamt of that for years"
Portrait of a Lady On Fire is not a complex film on the surface. Most of the dialogue is everyday observations, and there's not a lot of "action" in the film. But to the movie, none of that stuff even matters. Without a big budget, or big twist, the film is one of the most profound and insightful pieces of artwork I have ever seen, and forever changes the spectrum on how relationships, love, and femininity are seen on the silver screen. The film carves itself around the viewer, to the point where the audience feels as if they are a part of a story - an eerie follower chasing the action happening between the two main characters. And the script, regardless of simplicity, is one of the most original and beautiful pieces of writing that has been translated into a picture in quite a long time. There's a reason the film picked up the "Best Screenplay" award at Cannes Film Festival last May. Portrait is marvel, a film as stunning and picturesque about the artwork inside the film.
The film tells the story of Marianne, a female painter commissioned with a simple yet dangerous task: to paint a portrait of the rebellious Hélloïse to be given to her suitor. The catch? Hélloïse cannot know about this secretive mission, because she refuses to have herself painted. As Marriane and Hélloïse begin "walking", talking, and getting to know each other - the two realize that there seems to be something more than a friendship sparking. From there, the film takes the audience through turns and twists as the idea of love is tested, over and over again.
While the film clocks in at nearly two hours long, none of the movie feels wasted in any sense. Every scene is perfectly positioned, and every piece of dialogue ends up meaning something in the long run. Through intricate screenwriting and brilliant shots, writer and director Céline Sciamma helps not only stress the importance of the love shown on-screen, but also the danger of the two falling in love, due to the period in which the film is set and the society Marianne and Hélloïse are a part of. The film has three anchors to the cast, and doesn't waste any time trying to rope in a bunch of separate people or plot-lines, which works heavily in the film's favor. Instead of trying to get the audience to understand the thoughts of everyone in the film, Sciamma writes the story around these three characters, which strongly helps viewers get into the mindset of what the characters are feeling inside and how they are expressing themselves to one another.
On top of all of this, the film is extraordinarily melancholy, and every scene is practically radiating with energy, happiness, and small but passionate feelings of worry and sadness. Adéle Haenel and Noémie Merlant, the two leading ladies, are both brilliant in their roles, and quite instantly forge an on-screen connection that instantly ropes the viewer into the story at hand, right from their first interaction. The chemistry between the leads is forged so intensely and correctly that as an audience member, you are constantly on the edge of your seat, waiting to see what could possibly happen next in the two's love story. Only great acting, directing, and screenwriting can warrant such a feeling in a drama such as this one. But that, upon many other things, is the beauty of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Yes, it is a drama, but it doesn't feel that way when you're watching it. It has the anxiety factor of an action film, the emotional punch of a deeply crafted romance film. It isn't genre-bending film per se, but it almost feels as if it is with the reactions it can get from the audience.
As Bong Joon-ho said best, "Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films". I feel like this quote applies perfectly to Portrait, because it is a film that can only be told in the way it is told. This is a beyond amazing film, and no other romantic drama (especially from the United States) holds a candle to the emotions running through this story. Don't avoid Portrait because it's not in English, or because it takes a little more effort to follow - see this film because it is a great film, that will change the way stories of this genre are told.