*The following post contains spoilers for Portrait of a Lady on Fire*
Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens with a blank canvas. Paint streaks the white background, as Marianne then tells her students to focus on her. The blank canvas appears throughout the movie, a motif of discovery. While I’d be the first to admit that a film about a Lesbian romance would not be at the top of my must-watch list, Portrait of a Lady on Fire shocked me with its beauty and brilliance. It is a beautiful film that covers many topics, from navigating gender roles to the meaning of love. At its core, it is a story of how art can help us discover what we love and who we love.
The film centers on the developing love between Marianne and Heloise in the 18th century. Marianne is assigned to paint a portrait for Heloise, a daughter of an elite family living on an island off of the French Coast. If Heloise’s suitor likes Marianne’s painting of Heloise, he will marry her. At first, Marianne is told to keep her task a secret, as Heloise exhausted the last painter and refused to pose for him. Eventually, Marianne tells Heloise that she is painting her and Heloise agrees to pose for Marianne. As the painting becomes more realized, their intimacy and compassion for each other grow.
This movie is in part meant to change and play with the idea of the male gaze, but for me, this movie is mostly about the creative process. After Marianne is done painting the first painting of Heloise, she eventually fesses up that she is secretly painting her and shows the painting to Heloise. The painting is very basic, and while well-made, does not really capture Heloise’s essence. Heloise criticizes Marianne for the painting, telling her it is sad Marianne cannot even find the painting creative or personal. Marianne then destroys the painting for herself, because she knows she can do better.
During the second attempt to paint her, there is a great scene where Marianne and Heloise begin to see how close they have become. Marianne notes Heloise’s common behaviors from the view of the painter, and Heloise then tells Marianne similar small details about her behaviors. The implication is that both begin to understand each other through the creative process. The task of painting is not just the painter understanding the subject, but the subject understanding the painter as well.
As Marianne and Heloise spend more time together, they not only fall in love but create a society that is impossible elsewhere. Part of their ability to do this is because Heloise lives on a remote island, and after the first attempt to paint Heloise fails, her mother leaves, leaving Marianne, Heloise, and their maid Sophie by themselves. It allows them to navigate their roles and society differently.
Watching both Heloise and Marianne come to the realization they will never see each other again is so painful, and so brilliantly executed it is hard to not be moved otherwise. At one point Heloise is reading the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The story ends with Orpheus looking back towards Eurydice as they are escorting her out of the underworld, breaking his promise and leaving her stuck there. The maid Sophie upon hearing this is incredulous, believing that Orpheus damned her for no reason other than his selfishness. Heloise and Marianne interpret it differently, saying that he chose the memory of her. Marianne goes on to say that he made “the poet’s” rather than the lover’s choice.
I tend to agree with Sophie in this regard, as all Orpheus had to do was wait. But Sophie and Marianne are trying to make sense of what will happen once their time together is over, and Marianne has to leave the island. How will they choose to remember each other? They know that they may never see each other again so they do not have a choice. As Marianne begins to leave, Heloise beckons her to look back and she does. Marianne and Heloise make the poet’s choice.
The ending of the film makes it clear that while Marianne and Heloise can wish to be together, it would be almost impossible in 18th century France. They have no other choice but to make the poet’s choice. They continue the memory of each other even when society will not allow them too.