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Portrait of a Lady on Fire

By Bradley Lane

2019 was host to more spectacular films than any other in recent memory. Horror fans received an instant cult classic in Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, established Hollywood legends like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino released some of their best works to date and Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite became the breakout hit of the year and in the process became the first film not in the English language to win Best Picture at the Oscars. When my own end-of-year list was published in January Parasite topped my list as well, however some films that are considered 2019 releases based on their premiers had yet to be released in Indianapolis. One such film I had been anticipating was French director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which I am delighted to report is not only the best film of 2019, but without exaggeration, one of the greatest films ever made.

Héloïse, a lonely French aristocrat is set to marry a man she has never met in Italy, in place of her recently deceased sister. Protesting the marriage, she refuses to pose for her portrait, so her mother hires Marianne to paint her in secret, under the guise of being a hired companion for Héloïse. Slowly, a passionate but gentle romance sparks between the two as they quietly rebel against the restrictions set in place by the upper-class society of 18th-century France.

Sciamma’s romance is made of subtle gestures, wistful gazes and a quiet, almost undetectable anger. The two leads communicate more in one glance in this film than another film might communicate in its entire screenplay. The false pretense of companionship as a disguise for modeling creates a gaze that begins as artistic curiosity and slowly deepens and intensifies into something even using a word like love feels inadequate to describe.

This gaze moves outside of the context of the literal film and into metaphor as Sciamma begins to wrestle with the factors that prevent the leads from being with one another. The anger expressed by the characters, and in extension the film, is one of rebellion; against a system designed without consideration for the poor, against a society that derives value from a specific worldview and most clearly, against a male-driven cinematic tradition. It’s a simple conceit, but Sciamma is getting at a fundamental truth about not just film, but art at large. The more people who get the opportunity to create and have their work received, the better art becomes, and the film is its own best piece of evidence in its argument. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a riveting universal story that uses every moment to engage, challenge and move its audience, and it is not to be missed. – 5/5 stars

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