Portrait of a Lady on Fire and women’s stories

The story opens on a series of empty canvases and the shaky first lines drawn by artists’ hands. Soon, we realize that we are in a classroom of young women, led by our protagonist, a painter in late 18th century France named Marianne. She sees a student has pulled out a painting she had finished years before of a woman surrounded by darkness whose dress has caught flame. In a room full of shaky new beginnings, something so painfully complete throws her from her stride. When prodded, she tells her students the name of the work: Portrait de la jeune fille en feu.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Image Courtesy: Lilies Films (screengrab)

One of the most widely praised films of 2019, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which is the English translation of both the film’s and painting’s title, is generally described as a love story, but offers us a wider lens on love than a standard 120 minute film would—love for autonomy, love for poetry and music, love for the nature of storytelling and the role of symbology in our lives. One of the most vital elements of the film—and one significant way the theme of love is explored—is the level of care and sympathy shown for women that are attempting to navigate complex emotional situations. Through this acceptance of women’s flaws, the most important message of the film becomes judgement is faulty, fleeting, and unsustainable, while love, even neglected and unfed, lives on for a lifetime.

Through this acceptance of women’s flaws, the most important message of the film becomes judgement is faulty, fleeting, and unsustainable, while love, even neglected and unfed, lives on for a lifetime.

When her sister tragically dies from falling off a cliff, Heloise is pulled from a convent against her will to marry the man her sister had been intended to wed. Heloise has refused the marriage to little consequence. This unknown “Milanese gentleman” wants her to pose for a painting that will be the crucial component to help him decide whether or not he wants to marry her. She refuses to pose for a man, so her mother commissions a painter–a woman this time–to paint Heloise in secret under the guise of companionship. Marianne accepts the job, but finds herself captivated by Heloise.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes nothing so seriously as it does the legacy of women’s stories. In subtle ways, these stories survive, though often rendered indecipherable out of context. Before we even see Heloise we know that the trajectory of her life is not her own. When she notes that she didn’t hate the convent and appreciated the library and the feeling of equality that came from her time there, Marianne glides by the confession and quips that she herself found the convent repressive, laughing at the defiance of her child self. Heloise quietly watches her, and the difference in their experiences becomes painfully clear – the most oppressive environment Marianne has experienced is the one with the most freedom Heloise can even imagine, and even that is being taken from her.

Heloise’s deceased sister’s presence is subtle, but constant – we never see her, but we feel her ghost throughout the story. The young housekeeper Sophie casually notes that she believes she jumped rather than fell. Later, Marianne asks Heloise if she believes that her sister chose her death and Heloise notes that her sister had sent a letter in which she apologized profusely. When Marianne asks “for what?” Heloise shrugs, “For leaving me to her fate?”

Still, even as her fate has been left to Heloise, so is her quiet, tragic act of rebellion. The embroidery Heloise’s sister had been working on in her last days is taken up by Sophie, who was with her when she died. Sophie, who becomes pregnant but thanks to Marianne is able to have an abortion, may live to know a freer life than Heloise or her sister. Later when Sophie stares into a child’s eyes during her abortion, the living child is not indicative of something that Sophie has lost, but instead represents an infant that might grow into someone very much like Sophie, held together and supported by a society of women. Unlike so many abortion subplots in fiction, this is not about death, but rather the complexity of life.

The most oppressive environment Marianne has experienced is the one with the most freedom Heloise can even imagine, and even that is being taken from her.

There is an unlayering that is necessary to every element of this story. Things that matter are hidden and hard to get to, difficult to see at all. The long voyage to Madame’s estate, much of which is traveled alone, up a treacherous, rocky shore. Sophie’s secret, which emerges almost by accident during a late night conversation around menstruation. Heloise, who is shrouded in a cloak when we first see her. She walks away from us, her hood slips, and we only finally see her face after she suddenly darts forward, making it to the very edge of the cliff before abruptly stopping at the last second. “I’ve been dreaming about that for years,” she gasps. “Dying?” Marianne askes. “Running,” she replies. From this moment forward, everything seems precarious.

There is no time wasted on judging the mother, who in almost any other script would be written as villainous. She and Marianne briefly bond over her loneliness. Her desire to return to society after an extended time in isolation is understandable, and she’s following society’s guidelines to do so. Everything she does is perfectly reasonable, and if it is unjust, it is unjust by necessity in her eyes. She herself expresses a sense of resignation at her own marriage, and she sees no viable options for her and her daughter. Despite Heloise’s defiance, Marianne’s freedom, and their love for each other, they exist within the same social parameters that her mother does, and there is no escaping that for any of them.

The freedom these characters enjoy is emphasized as conditional at every turn. When Marianne confesses, “I’d hate to be in your place,” Heloise adamantly replies, “We are in the same exact place,” and while it applies to the temporal, it also applies to the fact that no woman knows true freedom in a society that is constructed towards oppression.

Image Courtesy: Lilies Films (screengrab)

Comparisons are made to Orpheus and Eurydice, offering a new take on the story that grants Eurydice full autonomy rather than resting her fate on Orpheus by simple asking, “What if he turned because she said, ‘Turn around?’” With this minor tonal change, the story reads completely differently. Eurydice now sees that Orpheus can continue a path that is closed to her, and for his sake, asks him to live her behind. She lets him go.

There are no easy answers in Portrait. There are no heroic moments for its protagonists, and no villainization for any one character, not Sophie for her abortion, not the mother for her betrayal of her daughters’ wishes, not even “the man from Milan” Heloise is to marry. Yet the sheer sense of loss intrinsic to the story is in itself not just a side effect of a tragic tale of love gone wrong, but a scathing indictment of society’s treatment of women. In these moments Heloise and Marianne share, everything seems possible, and it is those memories that they both cling to, even several years down the line.

In this way, the plot itself gives the feeling of painting. There is no promise that what fills a canvas will be satisfactory, that it’ll stand the test of time, or that it’ll last to tomorrow at all. We start things and hope that we can finish them, but more often than not, they are left feeling incomplete.

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2 Comments

  • Deborah Shea
    Posted May 20, 2020 7:47 pm 0Likes

    What channel?

    • S.E. Fleenor
      Posted May 26, 2020 2:07 pm 0Likes

      Right now, you can find Portrait of a Lady on Fire on hulu.com. In June, it will become available elsewhere!

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