Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire ★★★★½

It always makes for an interesting study to observe how a director matures from film to film. To understand exactly the fundamental, unchanging elements of their ever-changing method to filmmaking. Consider Chazelle with the transition from Whiplash to La La Land, Dolan with Tom at the Farm to Mommy, or even Tarantino from basically his entire filmography to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. However, it is in my personal opinion that no filmmaker has ever experienced this profound of a growth as Celine Sciamma with her leap from Girlhood, the embodiment of everything wrong with modern French cinema, to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the embodiment of everything right with French cinema as a whole.

What a powerful, intimate, and undeniably genuine cinematic depiction of love and art. This is a film that takes the simple idea of a forbidden romance and creates an experience that's not only endlessly complex, with a myriad of underlying themes beneath its narrative, but endlessly rewatchable with its sublime execution. The cinematography, sound design, and editing are all phenomenal in the subtlest of ways, complementing but never overpowering perhaps the two greatest elements of the film - the script as well as the performances that bring it to life.

A film more than deserving of winning best screenplay at Cannes, how Sciamma went from writing unimaginative pieces of social realism to creating a masterclass in subtext and characterisation truly is a feat worth studying. The dialogue flows like water, with almost every interaction not only providing a plethora of poignant ideas that would no doubt leave lasting impressions on audience members, but also revealing so much about the characters and their ever-changing relationships with one another, even despite the ostensible lack of progression from beat to beat. As a matter of fact, save for a single moment involving a poorly conceived hallucination, Portrait of a Lady on Fire has a perfect script. One that, through great dialogue alone and basically a single location with two leads and two sides, manages to greatly impact its audience both emotionally and poetically.

In this current age of cinema where filmmakers concern themselves less on the art of storytelling and more on representing relevant issues such as feminism, social classes, and homosexuality, having a film that dares to experiment and challenge its audience while still rooting itself fundamentally in the exploration of such themes truly is a testament to the filmmaker's abilities. And if one were to consider where Sciamma's previous effort stands in the context of socially conscious cinema compared to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, one can truly understand her monumental growth from a mere mouthpiece to a bonafide artist.