Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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My wife caught this movie at a film festival and loved it. I didn’t see it then, but was sent a DVD when it was voting time for the critics in December. According to all the critics, this is the movie that would have won the Oscar for best “international” film, if this wasn’t the year Parasite dominated that category (and every other category). I wasn’t as enamored with it as other folks were. Many critics put it on their Top 10 lists (and it won a screenplay award at Cannes). 

That doesn’t mean it’s not shot beautifully (props to Claire Mathon, the cinematographer behind Atlantics and Stranger by the Lake). 

Marianne is a young painter who has been hired to paint a portrait of Heloise. She’s about to be married to a Milanese man, and she’s a bit of a rebel. She’s not content to just act happy that her mom is marrying her off (hey, it’s the 18th century)…so she runs around the cliffs and ocean in France, and refuses to let painters capture her. So when Marianne is brought in, it’s on the down-low. She’s supposed to paint her without her knowing, so they become friends. Then they become lovers (I don’t think a “spoiler alert” was needed there).

The problem is that there are long silences and women staring at each other. That…doesn’t help make the emotional connections you should with these characters, or a maid that has a few interesting things going on in her life. Scenes just started feeling repetitive.

The few times there was a somewhat powerful scene (one being the ending), I thought of other movies — Call Me By Your Name and Death and the Maiden (Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver).

There’s beautiful cinematography and director Celine Sciamma captures an ethereal vibe that is highlighted by those lovely shots, but…it lacks in the romance department. I felt the same way about Call Me By Your Name. And just as I liked the musical references in Call Me By Your Name, it was wonderful to have so much Vivaldi in this. It’s just a shame that, instead of letting us simply enjoy a piece of The Four Seasons (Vivaldi, not Valli), we have to suffer through dialogue like “Your presence is made up of fleeting moments that are not true.”

I swear, French movies are so often disappointing. At two hours, this film was a bore, despite how gorgeous the filming was.

If you want to see the Oscar nominated movie, you can catch it at the best theatre in San Diego — the Angelika Film Center. If you live down south, it’s playing in Hillcrest..

2 stars out of 5.

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