In the story of Orpheus and Eurydice after Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies Orpheus is advised that he can head to the underworld to retrieve her. He is told that he must lead her back to the surface world but that he must not look back for her until they are safely returned. As Orpheus crosses the threshold back to the surface he relents and turns back but Eurydice is still below and is then doomed to stay in the underworld forever.
It’s this story that is at the heart of the theme in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a film as concerned with memory as it is with love. As the three principal women discuss in the film, is Orpheus a fool for looking back when he knows that will seal his love’s fate? Or is he a fool for love who wants to catch a final glimpse of his love exactly as she is in that moment, exactly as he loves her, and forgo putting them both through a second painful death?
The story begins in media res with Marianne (Noémie Merlant) teaching an art class. When questioned about a particular painting, a portrait of a lady on fire, she becomes visibly upset before the film cuts to the actual start of the story. Melanie en route to the home of a noblewoman in 18th century Brittany in order to paint the noblewoman’s daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The painting is a tool in order to solicit a marriage from an Italian nobleman, an arrangement that Héloïse is reluctant to engage in which is why she refuses to actually sit for the portrait. Marianne spends time with her under the guise of being a walking companion and paints into the night from memory.
Through daily excursions, the women grow close and begin a slow, simmering attraction that builds through the course of the story. An attraction that is played out with subtle glances and careful remarks, and plays out so delicately that when their relationship is finally consummated it’s one of the most moving and erotic moments committed to screen this year and it shows no more than a kiss, a caress, and one question.
"Do all lovers feel as though they are inventing something?" asks Héloïse. The question is left unanswered by Marianne but the answer, at least between them, is there on the screen.
The scene is made more powerful by Céline Sciamma minimalist filming style. There aren’t more than a handful of locations, and every interior set is stark and quiet. This makes every interaction between them Marianne and Héloïse feel more impactful, as each furtive whisper and glance consumes the frame, and at the moment that they finally act on their impulses their whispers feel loud and declarative.
Each of these actresses are compelling, each of them command their respective roles with grace and ease. Each one managing to convey the longing they feel through layers of societal repression. The story is as much told through the portrait, with it evolving as they grow close.
The moments they go on to share are tender and passionate, but alas this is the 18th century. As the painting approaches being finished it becomes more intimate but also becomes a token of their forthcoming separation. If you were hoping for them to run away together rather than to go on to their prescribed societal roles you might be disappointed, but the point of this story is not that but rather the memory of love; remember we already knew they wouldn’t end up together.
Like Orpheus and Eurydice, they’re separated forever but also forever in each others memory. It’s beautiful, and heartbreaking, and affirming all at once.
A love story for the ages, with probably the best final shot of any movie you will see this year, Portrait of a Woman on Fire is one of the best movies of the year.