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Portrait of a Lady on Fire is Nearly Perfect: Movie Review

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is Nearly Perfect: Movie Review
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About the Author

Tyler Collins

Tyler Collins

Tyler Collins has been a reporter with Oakville News since 2016. Covering local news and live events, he specializes in film, theatre, and entertainment. He comes from Campbellton, NB, and has lived in North Oakville over 20 years. Tyler is a proud graduate of Journalism and Performing Arts from Sheridan College. Twitter: @MrTyCollins

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It can be hard finding great movies to see this time of year. But there’s good news: Portrait of a Lady on Fire, last year’s Cannes hit from France, is the perfect answer. It might be the best new movie you haven’t heard of, and it opens in Oakville this week.

Before being too hasty on discounting a movie in French, think twice. Just because reading subtitles may have been a barrier in the past doesn’t mean there aren’t great new movies to enjoy.

Oakville, in fact, has been screening more non-English films than ever before. Films in nine different languages have shown at cinemas across town in the last two months alone. Recent Best Picture-winning Parasite making movie headlines has definitely inspired a new interest in seeing international movies. But where to start choosing one?

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the kind of movie worth branching out to see. Set in the late 18th century, it tells of painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) travelling to the island of Brittany. When he arrives, her portrait commission is of the betrothed Héloise (Adèle Haenel) who, instead of marrying the man coming for her, falls in love with Marianne.

Even though this may go without saying, Merlant and Haenel are spellbinding as the painter and subject. These two actresses are left with no crutches to hobble on, and every choice they make is exciting to watch.

What makes the movie so mesmerizing and beautiful is it’s brilliant imagery. Paint, fire and the feminine figure all mix together like paints on a palette. Portrayed in every way imaginable, some designs and combinations exude drama, theme, character and conflict all at once. It’s as if the movie itself were a gallery of paintings as genius as the one in the title.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Photo: Neon Pictures

The contrast of blissful quiet and the ambient sound of nature provide an earthy soundscape where the actors have nowhere to hide. All vulnerabilities and thoughts are left exposed, meaning every shot in the film says something even when nobody has anything to say.

It’s a pretty incredible effect, and with such ferocious concentration in every moment, who knows what comes next. Better still, Sciamma’s film captures the exact feeling of suddenly being in new love. And for two hours, the audience is left breathless in that unmistakable state.

Despite being past Valentine’s Day, there’s an extraordinary amount of both romance and heart. The delicate sensuality makes this dramatic romance appealing to cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike. As Héloise says, “Equality is a pleasant feeling.”

With Parasite’s win two weeks ago at the 92nd Academy Awards, there’s a new zeitgeist to see movies in another language. For those willing to try a different kind of cinematic experience, the reward often comes with exciting new frontiers.

Maybe Bong Joon Ho said it best in his Golden Globe Award acceptance speech back in January. “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” says Joon Ho, “you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of those films. If your interest has been piqued and your appetite has been wet, here’s a great place to start. Sciamma’s work exemplifies the stuff great, generous cinema is made of.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

9.5 out of 10
14A, 2hrs 1mins. Romance Drama.
Written and Directed by Céline Sciamma.
Starring Noèmie Merlant and Adèle Haenel.
Opens at Cineplex Winston Churchill & VIP Friday February 28th 2020.

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