“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” Paints a Tragic Picture of Love – Review

by Sarah Ruhlman
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This is a spoiler-free review of Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire Original Poster, Twitter
Courtesy of Twitter

In a recent episode of “Hot Ones” on the Youtube channel, First We Feast, actress Brie Larson noted that she believed that Portrait of a Lady on Fire “[would] become a classic”. Now, this statement is pretty bold. Despite receiving a whopping 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and a wide variety of award nominations, this film has gone somewhat under the radar, at least in the U.S. Not many people I know have watched it or even heard of it.

While Portrait was low down on my to-watch list, Larson’s comment made me reevaluate my choice. Therefore, I decided to watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire and determine whether I agreed. Does Portrait of a Lady on Fire have the potential to become a classic? Well, here’s what I thought.

The Portrait Premise

First, let’s talk about the basics. Portrait is a French film following a woman, Marianne, who paints portraits for a living. She arrives on an island where her job is simple. She must paint the portrait of a young woman, Heloise, to send to Heloise’s fiance in Milan. However, Heloise has already sent one painter away, refusing to pose for him. Therefore, Marianne must get close to Heloise so that she can create a beautiful portrait.

Honestly, as a first-time viewer, I would suggest knowing only that much before watching the film. Although I typically shy away from knowing too much about a film, I seriously think that having an edge of mystery will make Portrait better. It will keep you on your toes and pull you deeper into the story.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire Additional Poster, Twitter
Courtesy of Twitter

What I Liked

On the surface, Portrait hits all the marks of a well-made movie. You can tell that plenty of effort went into the minute details. From the colors each character wears to the sparse use of sound, every part of the film meant something. Of course, I really appreciated these things.

Specifically, I thought the shots in this film were beautiful. Many of them stand out in my mind hours after watching. And one special thing these shots did was convey the relationship between Heloise and Marianne. An audience member can see plenty through the looks each woman gives the other, however the filming of the two really brings the tone together. All in all, Portrait is beautifully and spotlessly made.

What I Loved

For me, the factors that truly make a movie stand out are the details. As I said before, Portrait had very specific, thorough details, which I liked. But, the details I loved were the ones that gave more depth to the story.

For example, Portrait offers such a vivid feeling of sisterhood and love that as a woman myself, I couldn’t help but feel warm inside watching it. The film tackles feminine struggles without becoming preachy, easily melding story with theme. Plus, the movie takes place over the span of about two weeks and yet these women form bonds that last lifetimes, especially Heloise and Marianne.

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Speaking of them, their relationship is the nucleus of the entire film. Without going too deep, I want to point out the symbolism between them. Specifically, the parallels between Heloise and Marianne and Orpheus and Eurydice, which is a story they read in the film. This extended metaphor put Portrait over the edge for me. It connected their story in such a way that made it realistic and tragic all at once.

And as a final note, I absolutely loved the costuming for this film. I can’t say I’m much of a fashion critic, but I really found it interesting how these characters were stripped down literally of their clothes so that you could see all of their layers. It made me grateful that I don’t have to wear a corset everyday.

The Final Consensus on Portrait

For me, Portrait of a Lady on Fire was entirely worth the watch. I enjoyed watching it, because it was unlike anything I had really watched before and it defied the cliches that could’ve come from it. However, to really understand whether the film could become a classic, it takes more than just my opinion.

While I could search Twitter endlessly for fan reactions, (almost all of which have high praises), I believe this Tweet says a lot about the film. In it, comedian Andy Samberg describes the beauty of a women led movie. Although this is just one aspect to the film, I believe it’s important. Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t a chick flick. It is a thoughtful look on the relationship between women, both platonic and romantic, and overall paints a picture of a tragic love story. One that, although sad, feels realistic for their time and ours. Basically, it’s the “one-that-got-away” in a beautiful, historical vignette.

All in all,

I believe Brie Larson has a good point. Portrait has captivated audiences around the world and affected countless people. But more than that, I truly hope she’s right. I hope that more and more people will watch this film and feel what others have. Heart-ache, disappointment, butterflies, kinship, etc. In the end, I would love Portrait of a Lady on Fire to last past 2020. Because just like any love story, it is timeless and never-ending.

Watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire now on Hulu!


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