“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is an exceptional example of the power of visual storytelling. A French film directed by Celine Sciamma, “Portrait” may very well be my favorite film of the year – and yes, I know it is only just March. I’m saying that it will likely keep the top spot through next year’s awards season. The acting, directing, and cinematography can hardly be rivaled, and had France submitted this over “Les Miserables,” they could have given “Parasite” a run for its money. “Portrait” was officially released last year in France and on the festival circuit, but since it has not had a wide release in the U.S. until now, I would consider this a 2020 film. See it while you can. This is not one to miss.
The majority of fellow American viewers that I know are instantly turned off of films with subtitles. There are in contrast people I know that watch their favorite Hollywood films with the subtitles on. Why they do, I have no idea, because when given a choice, I would prefer to watch a film without subtitles. However, ignoring foreign films robs you of truly deep and emotional experiences that touch more on the human spirit and conflicts that we face in our everyday lives. The films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder come to mind. A prolific German director in the mid-20th century, Fassbinder directed some of the most touching and realistic films of his time. His works focused on cultural or personal conflicts that the average person could relate to. There’s more to analyze and dissect than there is in any Tarantino film.
This year at the Golden Globes, Bong Joon-Ho described subtitles as “a one-inch barrier.” The great thing about many foreign films is that the dialogue is not as important as the visual storytelling that is unfolding. Paying attention to visual cues and the story being told through the actors’ faces can keep you on top of things. In the case of “Portrait,” there is a minimal amount of dialog to begin with. Reading the occasional line at the bottom of the screen is an easy task, and similarly as in the case of “Parasite,” the amount of subtitles is never overwhelming at one time. “Portrait” has gorgeous cinematography, and the film’s central story is driven through the acting and visual cues. The shifts in emotion on Noemie and Adele’s faces are enough to convey the full narrative.
The film is about a female painter who is hired to paint a portrait of a woman who is about to be given away in marriage. The problem is, that woman does not want to be given away in marriage, despite it being typical at that time for marriages to be arranged. It is traditional for a portrait to be painted of her before she leaves. The painter, Marianne, learns that her subject, Heloise, is obstinate towards having her portrait drawn because she does not want to be given away in marriage. Marianne must accompany Heloise on walks and secretly work on a painting of her that is derived exclusively from memory. The job proves to be much more difficult than anticipated.
“Portrait” is a film that is highly attune to its characters and takes its time to meditate on character interactions. It has a deliberate pace, and there are often long pauses in between moments of dialogue. There’s a feeling of isolation created through these long pauses and the impressive camerawork on display. We focus mostly on just a select few people that are living on this remote island south of France. The film was shot in 8K, so the colors and detail in every frame are remarkably crisp. I loved how long I was anticipating a romance that was built slowly and deliberately. “Portrait” has a fresh take on romance that is not centered around comedic elements or lust. There are feelings of betrayal, companionship, and just a devastating sense of inevitability that are beautifully fleshed out and foreshadowed, and they are explored in a way only possible through the female gaze. This is a ravishing, sensual experience that should be viewed by anyone who considers themselves a romantic.