Tuesday, March 3, 2020


Written and directed by Celine Sciamma and starring Noemie Merland as Marianne and Adele Haenel as Heloise.

“Do all lovers feel they are inventing something?”

The question hovers over two women who indeed are inventing something—not just creating their mutual love but telling a story about it.

Which also describes what writer-director Celine Sciamma is doing in the acclaimed French film, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE. She inscribes on the screen a series of deft images, that coalesce into an unusual love story, a process not unlike the painter named Marianne whose brush strokes on canvas gradually reveal a portrait of the woman who will become her lover.

Marianne has come to the wild coast of Brittany on a commission to paint a portrait of young Heloise. In this world of mid-18th-century France, a woman’s portrait introduces her to the hitherto unknown man she has been obliged to marry. Thus, we can understand why Heloise is reluctant to sit for the portrait which, in effect, will seal her doom. What results is a miracle that nothing to do with the arranged marriage: While Marianne studies the face and form of her subject, Heloise all the time is looking back at her—in effect, painting Marianne’s portrait. Call this a dual portrait. Call it a collaboration.

Which brings us to the central conceit of the movie—the relationship between Marianne the artist and Heloise her lover is compared to the Greek myth of the poet Orpheus and his great love, Eurydice. According to the myth, Orpheus descends into the Underworld to retrieve his lost love, Eurydice. With the power of his words (the song) and his music (the lyre), he persuades Hades to release Eurydice to the upper world. But there is a catch: During the ascent, Orpheus is forbidden to look back at her. However, pausing on the threshold, torn in a moment of doubt, he does look back. And loses Euridice. Moreover, Orpheus himself is forbidden to return and he is slain.

What is the meaning of this story? The Romantic philosophers, for whom this myth is a key text, suggest that while Orpheus yearns for ideal love, he is ultimately trapped by the impossibility of his dream, claimed by the pragmatic reality of the everyday world. This is called THE ROMANTIC IRONY: The true Romantic never attains—or even deep down never wants to attain—that higher realm that he’s yearning for.

Heloise offers her own interpretation as to why Orpheus looks back at Euridice: “Maybe Euridice asked him to.” It’s a startling insight. It is Euridice, not Orpheus, who seals the lovers’ doom. Let’s consider this in terms of this movie: When Heloise returns Marianne’s gaze, their fates are sealed. Like Orpheus and Euridice, they are fated never to be together. While Marianne loses Heloise, Heloise must live on elsewhere in an arranged and loveless marriage. Both are condemned to an emotional limbo.

This brings the film to a beautiful, yet tragic conclusion.

So far so good.

But I have a problem with all of this. It involves the music on the soundtrack. Early in the story, Heloise tentatively pick out a few notes of a melody on the piano. This is music, she says, that burns in her memory, something she had heard once before. And it is this music that wells up on the soundtrack—the only moment in the film when orchestral music is heard— during the final scene in an opera house as Heloise, now a married mother, looks back, in effect, and laments the lost love for the absent Marianne. We might expect this music of memory to be the most famous music ever composed to evoke the Orpheus myth—Gluck’s “Dance of the Furies” from his opera, Orfeo and Eurydice. But instead, to my shock and disappointment, what we hear instead is the “Summer” section of Vivaldi’s The Seasons! While this music in its violence bears a fleeting resemblance to the Gluck, it is not the Gluck. Director Celine Sciamma must have her reasons for this unfortunate substitution, but for the likes of me, it seems that she is evading the core myth she has been at such pains to create.

Now, go ahead and blame me for committing the cardinal sin of movie criticism—rewriting the movie.

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