Portrait of a lady on fire – Cannes 3 – A powerful painting

Cannes #3 - An analysis of one of the powerful movies of recent times. The film portrays the romance of two women set in the mid 18th century

The beginning

Portrait of a lady on fire – The movie begins off with hands sketching lines one after the other. The students then, staring straight at us for a moment, look at their canvas, and continue drawing. We come to know that a teacher is sitting behind us as we hear her voiceover giving out tips on how they should paint her. 

When we finally see the teacher, the first thing that strikes us is her sheer beauty. The fragile being sitting there is striking an elegant pose, and we are instantly glued to her. The beauty resides not only with her face but in the way her eyes seem to communicate with us. 

Abruptly, she asks her students who brought the painting out, pointing to the one leaning over a side of the wall. It is a portrait of a lady on fire. One of her students admits that she was the one to bring it out. She conveys her fear of her teacher’s stern gaze by asking whether what she did was wrong. With a nod of approval, she stares deeper into the portrait which acts as the portal to her past. 

Through it, we sneak along to hear Marianne’s story. We learn about the portrait of a lady on fire

Marianne, the teacher

The past

Marianne, the teacher, is asked to paint Héloïse, a former convent girl, who lives along with her mother at a remote Brittany residence. The painting, once done, is to be sent to Milan where one of its noblemen is to approve her. If approved, Héloïse will move on to Milan where she would begin her new life as his wife. 

It looks like a pretty straight forward job for Marianne. Except that Héloïse doesn’t want to pose because she doesn’t wish to marry. Also, a painter had run away trying to paint her before. So, the Countess, Héloïse’s mother, asks Marianne to act as a walking companion to Héloïse and observe her. Then she is to paint Héloïse without her actual presence and her knowledge! On asked whether painting this way is possible, Marianne doesn’t show any surprise and answers that it indeed is. 


We then face Héloïse who gets introduced with a tinge of mysterious air around her. Héloïse defines beauty in her own language. With Héloïse and Marianne together, we are left to gape on whom to admire. Héloïse is shattered on the outside with the recent death of her sister. 

We, along with Marianne, come to know through the help girl that her sister jumped from the hills and took her life. On asked how she knew it was done by will and not by accident, she provides a sharp and witty answer – ‘She didn’t cry out’. 

There is a rich silence after this conversation that envelops our thoughts of her suicide in such a poetic way. In truth, the entire movie is laded with such stillness and minimal yet powerful words that make it more compelling to watch.

The walk

Marianne accompanies a deserted Héloïse on her walks and studies her through her curious eyes. Every evening, she returns and adds bits and pieces to the portrait. Héloïse begins to get closer to Marianne and slowly, pretty slowly allows her to become her friend. Their conversation generally includes life, love, death, and marriage to a minimal extent. But silence predominates most of their walk and their talk. Both women speak through their eyes a lot more than their mouths.

Just like their friendship, the portrait is progressing fast. The presence of Marianna helps Héloïse heal a little. She confides herself to Marianne and looks forward to her company. 

Here, we are made to feel sad for both women -The air of guilt surrounding Marianne and the false hope Héloïse is getting from Marianne. Héloïse believes her friend truly and cherishes her presence. Marianne feels guilty that she puts on the mask of a walker to paint her portrait. The tension of what might happen if the guilt gets exposed makes our heart skip a beat. 

Héloïse and Marianne - Conversations after the walk
Héloïse and Marianne – Conversations after the walk

The portrait

Finally, the day comes when Marianne completes Héloïse’s portrait. She conveys to the Countess that she wishes to tell Héloïse the truth and show her the painting first. 

The moment of tension, a crucial part of the second act is to take place. Marianne tells Héloïse about this during their usual walk. However, Héloïse is not greatly disappointed with Marianne, and her displeasure towards her lasts just minutes. 

A close up of the completed portrait replaces the languid face of Héloïse. She stares into the picture for quite some time. She then asks with an unchanged expression if that was her. Surprised, Marianne looks at the picture and confirms her that it was indeed her. Héloïse tells Marianne that the portrait has no presence and is simply lifeless. Having said that, she steadily walks away. 

Second Chance

When the Countess comes to see the portrait, she is taken aback. There is no face on the portrait. Héloïse smiles fine. Marianne apologizes that she wasn’t satisfied with the painting and so she erased the head. She would do it again if the Countess permits. She refuses, but Héloïse agrees to sit. Héloïse glances at Marianne. The depth of their eye contact is unfathomable. Of course, we seldom know at that time that those eye contacts meant much more than we presumed. 

The Countess agrees to give Marianne a second chance and leaves out of town. Marianne begins the painting again, this time with the presence of Héloïse. With the absence of the mother, their friendship strengthens further. The three girls, including the help girl, spend the time together playing cards and visiting the valleys. Marianne and Héloïse begin to speak more through their eyes and their smiles.

Their eyes show their hidden desire
Their eyes show their hidden desire

Eurydice – 1

There is one beautiful scene where the three girls sit around to read the story of Eurydice. Actually, it is Héloïse who reads the story while the other two sit around to listen. As she renders the story of Eurydice and Orpheus, they argue on why Orpheus turns around to see his wife Eurydice, when he was clearly instructed not to. While Marianne infers that he chose to live with the memory of Eurydice and hence making the poet’s choice rather than the lover’s. Héloïse, on the contrary, hints that it was Eurydice who might have asked Orpheus to ‘turn around’.

We’ll come back to this conversation a little later. 

The three of them spend their time together
The three of them spend their time together

The three of them spend the time together while the portrait gets to great shape in the meantime. The women play cards, sing songs, walk through the beaches and eat together. Their bond strengthens with the absence of Héloïse’s mother.

The Portrait of a lady on fire

The moment after which the utter intention of the characters explodes happens just after these events. They go to a bonfire dancing ritual in the nearby village. As Héloïse locks her eyes with Marianne while walking around the fire, her dress catches fire. This scene becomes the portrait of the lady on fire. It is the same portrait that one of Marianne’s student finds in the opening shot of the film. It is the same portrait that led us into her past.

The Background Score for this entire scene must be mentioned at this juncture. The pure intensity of the scene is aptly expressed through the music that progresses its tempo. It elevates the scene to the spot that it needs to take off.  

The twist

Unfortunately, the film takes on a new turn after this scene. Rather it is the story that takes a big twist. After that scene, the closeness of Marianne and Héloïse augments. It augments multi folds that they become physically tied together. 

Now for many of the film buffs, the prime interest of the movie begins here. But, for me, it was not. It, in fact, destroyed me within. The way the film explored the women and their environment for the first 70 minutes or so led me to think of this movie in a different scope. When the movie ventured further as a portrayal of the intimate relationship between the women, I kept moving farther away from the film. 

‘Portrait of a lady on Fire’ turns out to be a rendering of a private and intimate affair between two women. Their physical intimacies jump to a sudden high level after that folk dance. After all, the actual fire brought out the inner fire of desire. The burning of that desire forms the rest of the movie. 

Page number 28

As their intimate fantasy reaches its peak, they slowly begin to understand that their romance is just that. With the date of the countess’ return nearing, they realize that their time together is coming to an end. They cry together, smile together, and behold each other in love. 

Marianne draws a small portrait of Héloïse as a remembrance of her. Héloïse asks Marianne to give her something that would make her remember her too. Marianne draws a picture of herself on an empty page in one of Héloïse’s novel. The page number 28 now bores a self-portrait of Marianne. Meanwhile, the completed portrait of Héloïse stands proud when the Countess returned home. 

The film then leads to the final act of the story. Though I felt tired after the unexpected love affair of the women, I loved how the entire movie carried forth the artistic feel throughout. The last part of the film, especially, is a finely crafted piece of art. Marianne takes the reward and leaves for her hometown. No one, apart from Héloïse, knows of her inner loathing. She still lives in the soul of Héloïse. 

A black screen brings us back to the present. Marianne complains to her student that she had made her look sad in the painting. The student aptly replies, ‘You were’ and takes leave. The story doesn’t end here. Marianne now proceeds with the narrative. This time she prefers to tell us directly. 

Orpheus and Eucrydice waving Goodbye to each other
Orpheus and Eurydice waving Goodbye to each other

Eurydice – 2

Marianne walks around a painting exhibition. She stops at one of her paintings of Orpheus and Eurydice. An admirer points out the beauty of the picture and wonders why she drew a pic where Orpheus and Eurydice seem to say goodbye to each other for one last time. In the portrait, Orpheus is seeing Eurydice as she falls into hell.

As she roams through the exhibition, she finds a portrait of a lady and her daughter sitting together. She doesn’t need a second glance to confirm the woman as Héloïse. As she looks at Héloïse after a long time, she studies the portrait deeply. As she admires the little girl sitting beside her, she notices Héloïse’s hands. They are holding a book. Her fingers are inserted deeply into a page so that the page number is just visible. She looks closely into the book. The number on the page is 28.

The page number - 28
The page number – 28

Marianne meets Héloïse for one last time at an Orchestra. Marianne sees Héloïse at the other end of the auditorium. Just as Héloïse settles down, ‘Summer -3’ from Vivaldi’s ‘four seasons’ (one of my personal favourites after Spring -1) begins to play. The camera slowly moves closer to Héloïse. Every note of Vivaldi’s crying Violin stirs her past. She remembers her conversation with Marianne on her wish to visit an Orchestra. As Vivaldi steers his Violin through, Héloïse cries. 

The cry

Crying is certainly not the right word to describe. Should I use the word ‘Wailing’? I don’t know. You have to see the scene to understand. That is one of the best-acted moments of french cinema, hands down. She keeps crying (wailing?) for an uneasy 2 minutes straight as the camera (Marianne) stares at her deeply. The screen turns black as she continues to cry her pain out. This time, she doesn’t turn around and look at Marianne. 

The whole movie is a painting made on a canvas called the screen. The movie doesn’t move away from that ideology, even for a single second, even for a single shot. The quality of film making turns out to be its biggest strength. Héloïse and Marianne fit into the canvas perfectly and provide a charm to the painting. The burning desire for love is convincingly portrayed in the film. 

Turn Around
Turn Around

‘Portrait of a lady on fire’ scores well on showcasing a patiently knit romantic drama. The movie emphasizes the space and time needed for the characters to establish themselves and understand their inclination. The in-depth research the whole team has conducted to reproduce an 18th-century environment is exciting. 

The movie and Eurydice

‘Portrait of a lady on fire’ is one of the well-executed movies of recent time (2019 movies). Multiple factors like Direction, acting,screenplay, location play a joined hand in making this film a treat to watch. The analogy of Orpheus and Eurydice plays an important part in this film. Why did Orpheus turn around to see Eurydice when he was instructed clearly not to? Why did he lose his control after holding it for such a long time? Did he want to have a last glimpse of her? Did Eucrydice ask him to turn around? Did they both know that living together was impossible?

Marianne might argue that he chose to be a poet than to be a lover. He might have wished to live with her memory alone. Or Eurydice would have called her too. Héloïse thinks so. Does that why Héloïse asks Marianne to turn around when she is about to close the door? Or Marianne knew that she had to turn back to live with the memory of Héloïse? And why does Marianne closes the door almost the moment she turns back at Héloïse. Why did she push her into the darkness just like how Orpheus pushed Eurydice into hell? 

Every question has the power to be answered in one’s own way. Every answer we give can redesign a new approach to the questions. The only inquest we need to ask is whether we tend to ask any question at all—that approach alone matters in our deep understanding of any film.

Portrait of a lady on fire - poster

As of June 30, Portrait of a lady on fire is running in MUBI

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