Aydan Nolan’s review published on Letterboxd:
My review initially was purely going to be regurgitating the same phrase I've had for several of these 2019 films - "I'm not really in the right state to piece together a coherent review right now and I don't think I could do it justice even if I wasn't a wreck!" But I really did want to form some type of readable nonsense and so here we are.
From a visual standpoint Portrait of a Lady on Fire is spectacular. The vibrancy to the film cannot be overlooked, paralleling the paintings the film is structured upon. Shot in 8k(!!), Claire Mathon's cinematography here is simply breathtaking. Each shot and every scene, the utmost beauty of the frame permeates beyond belief. Throughout the entire film I found myself taken out of certain moments, relishing in the classic and elegant beauty of it all. Without the use of score, this aspect of the film is the primary conductor behind the film's atmosphere. Though that being said the few instances of music being incorporated are nothing short of perfection. But the visuals largely create the mood of Portrait and personally, any movie that looks this good will have my keen interest by default.
However the camerawork overall I was a fan of, if we're not moving physically we are presented our characters in pretty much only static shots. But that's far from a bad thing, in fact the overwhelming beauty in those still frames that I mentioned earlier are increasingly so in this format because of how comfortable they feel in their display of our characters. With painting being such a vital inclusion into this film, it's only natural that the film itself is replicated in such a way. It only makes me wish I was into that medium more, as I feel there's a certain amount of symbolism and detail that someone more artistically inclined could draw from the film. Regardless I felt like it hit a point in the film where the cinematography was one with the characters and so instead of being detached in the process (in a formulaic sense - 1 camera (observing) + 2 actors) it felt like we were on that island with Marienne and Héloïse as if it were completely natural. I'm not sure what else to say about it because I could really just sum it up by saying it's utilization in the film is flat out exquisite.
Technically around the board I don't have a single issue and I find immense pleasure in the acting and the writing and direction from Céline Sciamma. I think the story is kind of perfect? I've said many times I love a slice of life type film and while this has an overarching story, it relies quite heavily on a day in, day out type structure which in my opinion works wonders. I think some of the best romance films centre around two characters and the process of them falling in and/or out of love over however long and I gotta say I prefer this approach. I find it significantly more successful than the 'relationship that blossoms because of story beats' angle because it's purely built upon two characters' interactions together with very little outside noise to push them on and closer. It's considerably humanistic and passionate and at the end of the day that's what my immersion and connection is built upon, though I will admit that's something I lean towards in general.
I adore the premise and plot kickstarter as it's so thematically rich and like my brother Kirk put it "men were not even present and yet their presence was felt". I quite like the maid character and I really loved that subplot (though it weaves into the main plot) as it complimented that substance greatly. There's such an interesting dynamic throughout the entire film that makes the primary focus so entrancing, but honestly despite the enjoyment I had from each element technically, the performances by Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are what make the film. You believe every second of their relationship and their chemistry together radiates cosmically through every single moment they share. Honestly even the ones they don't still has that aura. Perhaps I should rephrase what I said earlier - the cinematography and their performances and chemistry are behind Portrait's atmosphere. Of course it's not without Sciamma's writing and direction that this is all possible. There's such a noticeable grace behind the camera, as much of the film has this refined, elegant quality to it. Everything inside this feels completely purposeful and integral to the film overall and Sciamma's voice comes through in every corner of it.
It's been very bittersweet this past year having watched these great movies. On one hand they're so obviously magnificent and I have little trouble verbally speaking about them but on the other, when it comes to writing something that articulates my thoughts and feelings on them I just draw a blank. I don't know, I think being semi-speechless comes with the territory with such great cinema and the past few years we've been absolutely blessed. I think that's particularly true with the films that leave an emotional impression because like I was for Marriage Story as well, once it finished I could barely think straight.
To say I was a mess is putting it lightly, and so writing something fluent and comprehensible becomes immediately tougher. I don't often cry in films however more and more as the years pass do I find myself being ripped apart by a film's grasp. I think that's a great thing honestly, though it's a little concerning in this stage of the cinematic process where I'm trying to evaluate my thoughts and rate the film but can't really do it to the best of my ability cause it's still got me fucked up!! Given that, it's really no surprise the impact Portrait of a Lady on Fire has left on me and I'm comfortable enough now to say this is an immediate all-timer. It easily sits among the very upper echelon of 2019 and I'm 100% certain I'll be writing more about the film shortly, even if it is that awful "don't know where to begin" opener I've been resorting to.