My wife and I had tickets to go see “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” back in March. We’d booked them several days in advance and leading up to that Friday we debated endlessly whether it was something we should even be doing. The pandemic was starting to tighten its grip around New York, and the wisdom of a subway ride and a movie theater outing was starting to seem dodgy.
Ultimately we opted not to go, which in retrospect was the right decision. But how I wish we’d been able to see this big, gorgeous, astoundingly well made arthouse film on a large screen, because it very much is a work of art. Nearly every frame of writer and director Céline Sciamma’s romance about painting is composed like an Andrew Wyeth canvas, though imbued with an otherworldly warmth that Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon crank up with precise care.
At times, the pristine visual craftsmanship is almost a distraction—several shots of a a raging, preternaturally blue ocean practically shout above the acting. On the whole though, the dramatic tension more than justifies the aesthetic conceit: the movie’s characters are effectively stranded on an island with few expectations, and yet they’re able to realize immense beauty from their circumstances. This seamless joining of form and content is rare—and stunning.
Of the sixteen other movies I watched last month, it’s worth noting that the ones that debuted on streaming channels—the atrocious “Enola Holmes,” the diverting “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” and the flavorless “Rebecca” all support my running theory that the Netflix-age of original releases is one of underwhelming, slapdash quality. These movies are very rarely more than “fine,” and while it’s amusing to get easy, immediate access to them, the repeatedly empty calories-like sensation of disappointment is also getting really tiring. I can’t wait for this pandemic to be over.