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?