Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Starring Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami
After winning the screenplay award at Cannes, and topping many industry professional’s top film lists of the year, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” comes into the Toronto International Film Festival with elevated buzz. It’s apparently clear now that France will be deciding between Céline Sciamma’s female love story or another Cannes breakout playing at TIFF, “Les Miserables.” ‘Portrait’ opens with some of the most beautiful cinematography I have seen all year. The camera work by Claire Mathon (“Stranger by the Lake”) is captivating in every light, room and location. It’s beautifully boring, and that’s where the praise ends. Sciamma joked at the debut of her film that it was four hours long, and that’s how it feels. Instead of dialogue, there is silence, little movement, just characters staring at one another.
Untethered Marianne (Merlant), a young painter who has the fortune of deciding her own fate, has been hired to paint a portrait of Héloïse. Unlike Marianne, Héloïse (Haenel) is to be married in a few weeks to a Milanese man. Héloïse enjoys her seclusion on an island with tall cliffs surrounded by rough waves, and knows nothing of the outside world or of love. She’s bitter at the thought of her mother marrying her off and has refused to sit for any of the other painters hired to complete this necessary portrait. “You must paint her without her knowledge,” Marianne is instructed. She is to be a companion, and study her features in order to complete the work. The women begin to spend a lot of time together and become close in a way neither expected.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire calls checkmate to even the most boring Terrence Malick film.
You have seen paint dry faster than the plot moves for “Portrait of a Lady.” Its cinematic beauty isn’t enough to sustain your attention for over two hours. There are exquisite long shots that are dead silent, where the characters rarely utter a word. You are more likely to hear the theater personnel’s radio communication than anything from the film. Unfortunately “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is the sort of 90’s foreign film that have given the genre a bad name. There is little for the audience to engage with in the film, a simple joke or overture feels like another movie’s action sequence.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” calls checkmate to even the most boring Terrence Malick film. It’s astonishingly repetitive in how the script ensures the characters wear the same clothes throughout the movie. Only three settings are used: beach, house interiors and exteriors. Sciamma wants us to find drama and substance out of the silence and inference. There won’t be enough meat on this film for most. In the third act, Sciamma borrows some obvious moments from “Call My By Your Name,” the ending feels directly inspired by the previous film. The film isn’t ‘transportive,’ you never really feel the circumstances of their lives. It might be one of the most difficult films to sit through in a theater.
A vapid and burdensome experience in spite of it’s beauty.