The Power of Looking in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

In “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the themes of looking, love, loss, and memory intertwine with the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. When Héloïse and Marianne were pondering over this tragic story in the film, I was very intrigued since it reminded me of the Broadway musical Hadestown, a contemporary retelling of the myth I had the opportunity to watch in the Fox Theater. Being that the myth was already familiar, I appreciated how central its message was to the film. Before I begin to analyze the power of looking, I invite you to watch this video to brush up on your knowledge of Greek myth.

In the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus, a gifted musician, loses his beloved wife Eurydice to death. Driven by grief and love, he ventures into the underworld to retrieve her. His music moves Hades and Persephone, the rulers of the underworld, who grant him the chance to bring Eurydice back to the world of the living on one condition: he must not look back at her until they have both exited the underworld. Unfortunately, Orpheus cannot resist the urge to look back, and Eurydice is lost to him forever.

In the film, Marianne and Héloïse share a passionate and forbidden love affair on a remote island, knowing that their time together is limited. Their love is intense but temporary, much like the love between Orpheus and Eurydice. The film, like the myth, underscores the idea that some moments of love and beauty are ephemeral, and trying to hold onto them can be futile.

Marianne: Your presence is made up of fleeting moments that may lack truth.
Héloïse: Not everything is fleeting. Some feelings are deep. The fact it isn’t close to me, that I can understand.

– Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Their love affair is like a fleeting moment, as Marianne tells Héloïse during one of their portrait sessions. Close-ups of Marianne’s expressions while painting Héloïse tell a story of desire, captured by the intense look of the female gaze. In another scene, when Héloïse reads the Greek myth, Marianne defends Orpheus impatience in turning around to look at Eurydice, knowing it could be his last time, by explaining how madly in love he was. Orpheus was driven by love, not consciousness. The forbidden love between Marianne and Héloïse is fueled by desire and love, breaking societal norms and expectations. They’re only thinking about themselves, selfishly, similar to Orpheus. In making the poet’s choice, Orpheus chooses the memory of his love rather than a life with her.

A memory reminds me of a painting. An image you can freeze in time, capturing the ephemeral nature of the moment in all its splendor. Both are things you can revisit in the future. However, to remember is subject to forgetting. Memories can fade, a portrait is cemented on a canvas. Héloïse tries to argue how their love, and in turn the memory of it, can be deep as well. Her feelings for Marianne aren’t fleeting. Evidently, at the end of the film, after so many years, she visits an orchestra and weeps for her lost love. But Héloïse never forgets. Her memory of Marianne is deep-rooted and as unforgettable as the portrait itself.

Marianne continues the discussion of the myth and offers that maybe Eurydice asks Orpheus to turn around herself. This ties into the final scene of the narrative that takes place in the past, where Héloïse runs after Marianne as she’s leaving and asks her to turn around. Cinematography plays a key role in this scene: A close-up shot of Marianne turns, delivering a heartbreaking final moment. Marianne turns, knowing this could be the last time she sees Héloïse. Next, a low-angle shot presents a Héloïse towering over the audience in her white gown, glowing and ethereal. Just like Marianne, the viewer is left to take in the scene, but only for a beat. Light goes dark. The use of color, or lack thereof, reminds me of the artistic choices made in Black Narcissus, where red takes over the screen to symbolize anger. The pitch-black screen exemplifies forgetfulness. The breathtaking image of Héloïse now becomes a memory that we can forget.

Black Narcissus, 1947

Years later, Marianne showcases her painting describing a scene of the Greek myth. In the painting, Orpheus and Eurydice face each other in their final moment, as if saying goodbye. In the myth, Orpheus doesn’t get to say goodbye; as he turns to catch a glimpse of Eurydice, he finds her dead or gone. But Marianne does have the chance to say goodbye, at least through the exchange of looks. One last look at her muse, whom she observed minutely for weeks and fell in love with. A look full of desire and desperation; full of grief from losing and hope from loving. Certainly, such a powerful look is one Marianne will never forget.

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