Portrait of a Lady on Fire appeared on nearly every top 10 list from 2019 I can remember, but our local theaters never bothered to bring it to town, so I wasn’t able to see it until this last weekend. I usually work hard not to let my expectations get the better of me, but I failed—it was just receiving so much praise.
And, well, it didn’t meet my expectations. It completely. Blew them. Away.
French director Céline Sciamma has made a name for herself with movies depicting various aspects of girls’ lives, but here, she moves up an age bracket, with a story about women—an 18th century painter who’s hired to make a portrait of another young woman about to be married off to a man she’s never met. The two experience an intimacy that comes with staring into another’s face for hours a day, and they find they’ve fallen in love. Times being what they are, we know this love is doomed.
Sciamma trades in her usual grittier style for an exquisitely stunning visual artistry: Every scene looks like a painting at the Louvre, every single one of the movie’s 174,768 frames is a masterpiece. To say this is one of the most beautiful films you’ll ever see seems a wild understatement.
It’s unabashedly romantic, with crashing waves, tears, and, of course, burning flames. But it’s restrained enough that it never spills over into melodrama. The tone is subdued, but never languid. A searing vitality and passion fills every moment.
Movies by women, about women and their real desires, needs, and struggles are still — still — depressingly rare, and this is the kind of film that demands to be recognized, and makes us wonder what kind of great work we’re still missing by not giving women more opportunity.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the very best movies of the last decade. It’s high art to the highest degree, a movie that is great now, will be great in 50 years, will be great in 150 years. It pulses and burns with life, and closes with a final shot that will leave you trembling.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is currently available on Hulu and will be available for streaming rental later this month.