“Thou hast made the furies weep, Orpheus. This is unheard of.” So says Persephone in one of the best retellings of the mythological story of Orpheus and Eurydice, in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Special #1. “Thou hast made the furies cry, Orpheus. They will never forgive you for that.” The three leads of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (French: Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) read and discuss this myth near the middle of the film and take from it different interpretations. It’s a well-known myth: Eurydice, beloved wife of the poet/musician Orpheus, is bitten by a viper and dies; Orpheus’s musical mourning so moves the spirits of the earth, the Furies, and even Hades himself that Eurydice is allowed to return with Orpheus to the world of the living, so long as he does not turn around until he has emerged from the Underworld. At the last moment, Orpheus turns and sees his beloved for but a moment before her spirit is pulled back into the world below.
Let’s circle back around to that. Portrait relates the story of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter who has been hired to go to an isolated island off of the French coast in order to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). It’s the end of the eighteenth century, and Héloïse has returned to her home after spending some time in a convent; previously, the responsibility of marrying a wealthy man and ensuring her family’s continued financial status fell on Héloïse’s eldest sister, but with her death, that now falls to Héloïse herself. She has no interest in modeling for a portrait that is to be sent to a Milanese merchant to secure a proposal, and previously ran off the last painter by refusing to sit for him. As Héloïse’s countess mother (Valeria Golino) explains, Marianne is to keep the true purpose of her arrival secret and pose as a kind of lady-in-waiting/hired companion for Héloïse on her walks. She is assisted in this subterfuge by maidservant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who fills in the details about the history of the house and its inhabitants.
Héloïse and Marianne grow quite close, and we learn that Héloïse had loved the convent because there was music and books and art, and she wants nothing to do with the life of playing wife to a stranger and bearing him heirs. Marianne sympathizes, as she lives adjacent to the world of art and artists, with men as gatekeepers. Her father is likewise a painter, and although she will one day be able to live as a free agent by inheriting his business (and not be forced to marry for economic security), she is still forced to submit her paintings in his name in order for them to be displayed, and she is forbidden from painting male nudes. When asked why, she explains that the stated reason is for the sake or propriety, but that the truth is that the establishment wants to ensure that women are never able to break through into “real” art. This doesn’t stop Marianne, who paints the male form in secret. “It is tolerated,” she says — as long as no one knows. Eventually, when the Countess is away, Marianne and Héloïse help Sophie try to rid herself of an unwanted pregnancy, and the three grow close as a result, with Héloïse and Marianne eventually admitting their love for each other and submitting to their growing passion.
Upon hearing the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, Sophie proclaims it unfair to Eurydice, who was damned by the folly and insecurities of her husband and through no fault of her own. Another proffered interpretation is that Orpheus, ever the poet, found himself at a crossroads with the opportunity to live with and love his wife for the rest of their days or immortalize her and enshrine her in poetry forever, and chose the latter. Yet another interpretation is that Eurydice had all of the agency, and asked that her love turn to her one last time and resolved herself to the darkness of the Underworld voluntarily. It’s an effective demonstration of the power of story in general and mythology in particular: a single narrative, interpreted differently by three different women who are all bounded and informed by the horizons of their experience and expectation. Sophie, who has limited means of changing her social status and needs the assistance of others to get rid of her fetus lest the Countess turn her out, sees herself in Eurydice as the victim of circumstance. The artist in Marianne recognizes the artist in Orpheus and sympathizes with both his love and his potential for self destruction. Héloïse sees herself as Eurydice the defiant, who would rather live in a world of her choosing than follow a man, and as Eurydice the empowered, who would rather that the one she loves look upon her once and for all and see her as she is than live as a shadow of what she truly wishes to be.
This is a powerful film, haunting and beautiful. I wept openly at the film’s ending, and immediately told everyone I could that they must see it as soon as possible. When a friend first saw Call Me By Your Name, he messaged me to ask if I had seen it yet, and he said that it had left him “undone.” That descriptor stuck with me in the intervening years, and it finally applies to something for me in equal measure: I was undone by Portrait. It’s a story of a brief love, but one which inspects the brevity of love and the all-consuming power of obsession and delights in, rather than condemns, it. The genre of romance is one in which the “happy ending” of the story is one in which the happy couple overcome the odds against them and set off for a live together. In other words, romance as a genre is a lie. Falling in love is the easy part; people do it all the time, often with people who are no good for them. The reality of life is that getting together isn’t a finish line, it’s just a new starting position, and that the “race” entails work, compromise, understanding, and sacrifice. As much as Héloïse wishes that Marianne would ask her to do defy her destiny as a trophy bride for a foreign businessman, Marianne, with her greater knowledge of how the world works, knows that she can’t and won’t. For her, Héloïse is better enshrined, as she is in the title painting, even if she will never stop loving her. The world simply does not have room for them to live in it as themselves.
This is a sumptuous film, full of life and fire and pulsing waves. It is quiet, save for the murmur of voices and the omnipresent clack of boot against hollow wood floor, and the roaring of fires and music of the sea. Only three times do we hear music: when Marianne attempts to play Vivaldi’s Summer Presto for Héloïse, when a seaside group of women sing an acapella chorus, and at the end when Héloïse attends a symphonic performance of Vivaldi. Its music is purely of the soul and not the ear, but you can hear it in every moment.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond