At the beginning of the film, we see a paintress conversing with her students, and in the background, there is a picture they brought, but they should not. The painting portrays a grayish landscape, and a woman with her dress on fire, slowly walking towards it centre, so it seems. The majority of the painting is covered in clouds, as if a storm is about to break, and a small moon, rather shyly, illuminates the scene. The woman in the painting is rather small as well, it seems that she is more of a memory than a presence, a reminiscence with her dress on fire. The paintress says that she painted the painting “a long time ago”, and we can say that the whole film we are about to see is but a memory. The film takes place in Burgundy, at the end of the eighteenth century.
The paintress, Marianne, is commissioned by a young girl’s mother to paint her daughter, and the painting is bound to be presented to a Milanese nobleman, before his marriage to her daughter takes place. As Marianne enters the house, the atmosphere is dreamlike, and the abundant use of candles in the film emphasizes its dreamlike character. Soon, we find out that the sister of a girl who is bound to be married died shortly before. Not because of illness, they say, and we can presume that suicide was in question. This is further confirmed when the maid, Sophie, says that she believes that she jumped off the cliff, since she didn’t hear the scream (which would occur in the case of her falling by accident). These facts prepare us for the events we are about to witness, and they stress an important thing.
Since the girl in question was bound to marry to the nobleman, we can presume that she wanted to escape the predicament; the element of danger and the suffocating nature of fate which awaits Héloïse, the girl whose painting is commissioned, and must marry a Milanese nobleman in her sister’s stead. Héloïse had just returned from a Benedictine monastery, exchanging one cloistered existence for another, since her mother does not let her leave her house alone, most likely out of fear for her life, considering the fate of her sister. Since Héloïse refuses to pose for the painting, and we can see her face on the previous one painted over, Marianne must covertly observe Héloïse, and paint the portrait in secrecy. When Marianne sees Héloïse for the first time, she is covered in a dark-blue mantle and starts running toward the end of the cliff, only to stop at its very edge. She says that she dreamed about this for a long time, and when Marianne asks if the matter in question is dying, Héloïse simply replies: “Running”.
She was not allowed to live her life as a young woman, since when one lives a life of reflection, in this case in the monastery, nothing much really happens, apart from enjoying music and singing, which Héloïse adored, as well as equality. Soon we can see Marianne drawing a rough sketch of Héloïse, and we can see that her understanding of Héloïse, of her physiognomy and character is only beginning to form. Marianne points out that the dominant emotion which Héloïse feels is anger, that her mother should not fear for her daughter’s life, and that she should be permitted to go out of the house alone. In a brief conversation, Héloïse asks Marianne, playfully, if being free means to be alone. We can see that she plays with the notions of freedom and loneliness, and relates them to her impending marriage. When Héloïse finally leaves the house, to spend some time alone, she goes to the mass to listen to the music she finds endearing.
In this instance, we can see that her existence is a cloistered one; she hardly imagines different sensations and places to visit. Nevertheless, her free-spiritedness is evident in the reason why she went to mass – she wanted to enjoy art, the only form of music which is known to her, the sacred music. When Marianne plays Vivaldi for her on the piano, an entirely new world is opened for Héloïse, as she listens to profane music Marianne plays, they look at each other with longing. The choice of Vivaldi is interesting on the part of the director, since Vivaldi embodies the duality of the sacred and the profane, in his work, in a similar way in which Marianne and Héloïse’s love can be compared to the sanctity of marriage, at least in the 18th century context. The coming of the storm which is conveyed in Vivaldi’s music, was painted by Marianne later, as we can see in the painting we see at the beginning of the film. Héloïse says that she felt the liberty Marianne spoke of, while she was alone, but also felt her absence.
Héloïse’s finding out that Marianne is with her in order to paint her painting does not change their relationship, quite the contrary, Héloïse accepts to pose for Marianne, and they have five days together alone. When Héloïse sees the first painting of her, she mockingly asks is this how Marianne sees her. The latter replies that there are rules, conventions and ideas which are fundamental to the painting process, and Héloïse answers in turn: “You mean there is no life?”. She refers to the idea that not everything is fleeting, that some feelings are deep and lasting. We can see the first painting burning; the unsuccessful representation of Héloïse is on fire. Now, we can see one of the many meanings of the phrase “a lady on fire”. It can mean the destruction of an image, which was earlier in one’s mind, and is later replaced with longing, the lady which is on fire is consumed, but not to be destroyed in Marianne’s heart and mind, but purified and transformed.
When they start describing the movements each of them makes when they are moved, or uncomfortable, we can vividly see that they are in love – “We are in the same place”. Their love becomes a dream, and as the French writer Michel Houellebecq writes: “I don’t think I’m mistaken comparing love to a kind of dream à deux, admittedly with some individual moments of individual dreaming, little games of connection and encounter…” In other words, persons in love are in a communal dream which involves two of them, and we can observe those happy moments when they play cards with Sophie or simply lie on the bed and talk. Héloïse reads Ovid’s tale on Orpheus and Eurydice, and Sophie says that it was ludicrous of Orpheus to turn and lose Eurydice for eternity – Marianne replies that Orpheus had chosen the memory of Eurydice; it was the choice of a poet. Instead of leaving the underworld with his beloved, the Eumenides themselves were moved by this song, Orpheus decided to look at her one last time and preserve the memory. Instead of fleeting moments together, he chose something solid in time, eternal, the memory which endures.
The tragic element in this story is that the last thing he sees is Eurydice vanishing; the thought of seeing the loved one vanishing from sight and imprinting this very memory is painful in itself, and the illusion which he maintains is the memory of beauty, but also pain. This leitmotif is repeated for several times later in the film, as Marianne sees Héloïse in her wedding dress, as she vanishes from her sight, into darkness. In one of their last moments we see them together, Héloïse asks if all the lovers feel like they are inventing something. In other words, creating something entirely new, envisioning it with their own creative power. It is not only envisioned as such, it is produced as a radically new experience, and to recall Houellebecq’s words, similarly to a dream, it is an artifice, but feels entirely real.
When two lovers debate whether there is a possibility, or a desire to oppose the marriage which is to come, we can clearly see that such a possibility does not exist. Marianne says (about the finished painting): “I’d like to destroy this one too.” Not in the world of the 18th century, and this is a classic opposition between love and tradition. With its firm grip and solidity, tradition holds the fates of men, and cannot be overturned without catastrophic consequences. In their love, there is an experience of continuity (in contrast to the discontinuity of our mortal lives), as Bataille would say, an illusion of it at least, but the imminence of its discontinuity (the marriage with a Milanese aristocrat) shatters all illusions. The result can only be tragic, in line with Orpheus’ experience of pain. Marianne sees Héloïse last time, at least in the course of their affair, when she leaves the mansion, and Héloïse says: “Turn around”. She is in a wedding dress and vanishes, just like in Marianne’s visions, and their last encounter has a mythical resonance.
In this moment, we can envision the meaning of the phrase “portrait of a lady on fire”. Since it is a portrait, it is a representation of a woman which is “on fire”, with love, but also the burden of urgency which makes her comply with the demands of tradition. Thus, in this phrase, the two main antagonistic forces portrayed in the film are surmised. Marianne does see Héloïse one last time, after she marries the Milanese gentleman. She is at a theatre, and the same Vivaldi piece she played for her is performed. Tears, and utter emotional devastation capture Héloïse, and it can be said that in Portrait of a Lady on Fire we can see a tragic, devastating closure. At this moment, we can imagine how Eurydice felt while she was vanishing in the eyes of her beloved. We can fathom the primordial pain which exists under the surface of this world, while the illusion, the representation of the lover seen for the last time, is the form given to it.
If you enjoyed this article, you can buy one of the great books which inspired it on Amazon:
Michel Houellebecq, Serotonin, 2019
The latest novel by one of France’s, and Europe’s greatest contemporary novelists, captures the despair of an individual caught in the merciless web of contemporary society; the book anticipated the Yellow vests movement in France, with its portrayal of French farmers destroyed by EU’s agricultural policies, and is in fact one long rumination on love and its place in the modern times.
Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality
An important book by a controversial and inspiring French author. In this work, a powerful connection between death and eroticism is made; his work is embodied in David Lynch’s films, most notably “Blue Velvet” and “The Lost Highway”. One can see the similar themes in Cronenberg’s work, for example his highly controversial film “Crash”. Bataille’s work inspired a significant strand of surrealism, its dark side, associated with death, sadism and desire.
If you enjoyed the motif of Orpheus’ last gaze on Eurydice and its use in “The Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, you can acquire Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and enjoy the original story yourself! I would also suggest Jean Cocteau’s interpretation of the myth in his surrealist film “Orpheus”:
Jean Cocteau, Orpheus [The Criterion Collection]
And lastly, the notion of the tragic I explored briefly was inspired by Nietzsche’s first work, and a seminal work on tragedy. Hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did!
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings