Portrait of a Lady on Fire — 8/10

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (2019, Céline Sciamma)

About as fresh a take on this well-worn material as you’ll get. We’ve seen dozens of rearview-mirror passionate affairs, in everything from BRIEF ENCOUNTER to BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY to CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (I love all three of those, for what it’s worth), and it’s to Sciamma’s great credit that she manages to build this movie from elements seemingly flown in from outer space nevertheless. It’s resolutely silent and score-free, so that the few brief musical interludes (a piano flirtation, a campfire choir, a symphony orchestra finale) hit extra hard. It earns all its power from either the movement of the camera or the lack thereof, including when it cuts to close-up and when it avoids faces entirely. Even moments that should read as heavy-handed (a girl gets an abortion while a baby’s hand holds her finger) somehow feel perfectly within the tone of the picture, assuredly directed and steadfast in its composition. And it isn’t just about a fleeting affair to be longed for; it’s also a pro-art essay on the relationship between creator and subject; a fantasy view on a world unburdened by both the gaze and physical control of men; and a tone poem where elements like fire, fabric, landscape, and oil become characters with life and vibrancy — contrasted with shots like the static-camera observation of food-prep where sliced mushrooms, green onions, cutting boards, a table, and a fireplace become still-life paintings from 250 years ago. It’s a movie that’s both still bleeding and one that’s a relic from a time none of us will ever experience.

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