In ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ There Is No Guilt, Only Art

The most erotic shot of an armpit we’ve ever seen.

Florine Stettheimer’s “Eurydice and the Snake” is currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art. The collage comes from a series of costume design pieces for the artist’s ballet, “Orphée of the Quat-z-arts.” Strings of beads hang as trousers over white brushstrokes of a woman. Glittered metal lace is pinned to her shoulder, creating the illusion of a scarf wrapping behind Eurydice’s raised arm as she dances. On the opposite side of her body, a snake sways up and around her. The snake is flat, except for thirteen small beaded scales on its long neck and a few strings of beads around the face. Its tail starts behind her one planted foot, then crosses the calf, disappears behind a narrow thigh, and climbs before draping itself over her other arm. Eurydice and the snake — which according to myth bit her, instantly aged her, and swept her shape into the underworld like a rhinestone down the drain — are dancing together, having fun. 

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is the new period piece from director Céline Sciamma. As with “Eurydice and the Snake,” the film approaches the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice from a different direction. The events take place between women on a remote family estate off the coast of Brittany in the late 18th century. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter commissioned for the traditional pre-marriage portrait of aristocratic Héloïse, (played by Sciamma’s former girlfriend, Adèle Haenel) who is engaged to a Duke in Milan. It’s a marriage Héloïse refuses. She won’t sit for a painting, and won’t so much as show her face if she thinks a painter is near, so Marianne is introduced to her as company for her walks along the coast. Marianne takes care to gather secret glances on her walk. She notices the way Héloïse holds her own hands when she’s relaxed, how she furrows her brows when she is displeased. She takes in the appearance of her profile like an ornithologist looking for unique patterns of plumage so that she may recreate them secretly at night. 

When Héloïse’s “essence” becomes unportrayable, Marianne asks Héloïse’s mother — a lonely woman desperate to return to the city she remembers nostalgically — to permit just another week to finish the portrait. It quickly becomes clear that Marianne is not the only one carefully looking. In a key scene, Héloïse asks “When you are observing me, who do you think I am observing?”

 

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The Brittany estate, with its intertwining hallways and empty palatial rooms, does not often have men present. In fact, the audience only sees men at three points in the movie. When Héloïse’s mother returns to Milan, the last vestiges of patriarchal control are lifted, the tight bodices and skirts come off, and a free romance forms between Marianne and Héloïse. Her servant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), no longer tethered by classist restraints Héloïseis’s mother imposed, is free to engage with them as well.

The film is a quiet one: Fire crackles in Marianne’s guest room where all the furniture is still draped with sheets, and Marianne warms her naked body in front of the fireplace smoking a pipe. We hear paint brushes scrape against rough canvas, and a watery mix of hemlock and mandrake — according to Google — is gently rubbed under Héloïse’s arms with a slight suckling sound and the friction of hair. It is the most erotic shot of an armpit I’ve ever seen.

Then there are moments of clamor. Vivaldi is played in the home, and then later, in a concert hall. Waves build audibly their own shushing mass before crunching on the coast. The women play cards together — laughing and swearing at each other’s luck — and attend an outdoor feast together, during which an acapella song builds in a moment so protracted and hushed that the final inclusion of voices feels like an orgasm.

As the period of the painting comes to an end, the women realize that this brief holiday from patriarchy is about to end as well. So begins the inevitable question of how to look back on each other and the time. They are reading the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice when a disagreement about why Orpheus looks back, knowing doing so will cost him another life with his wife, breaks out.

Marianne says, “He chooses the memory of her. That’s why he turns. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.” 

Héloïse reads the passage back again. “She spoke a last farewell that scarcely reached his ears and fell back to the abyss,” she says, before adding, “Perhaps she was the one who said, ‘Turn around.’” 

At the Museum of Modern Art, the day after my partner and I went to see the movie, I stood looking at the Stettheimers. Charlie sat on a bench a few feet behind. I could hear them breathing. And the longer I looked at “Eurydice and the Snake,” the more I couldn’t tell if Eurydice knew that the snake was there. Her eyes are closed, her head turned away from it. For a moment, that old Catholic guilt crossed my mind. Maybe Eurydice knew the snake was there, knew she liked it, but couldn’t meet her desire in the eye. Then I thought, of course not. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is not a movie about guilt. There is no guilt in the movie. There is no imagination that the codes of the men so absent from them should dictate their behavior or their love for each other. There isn’t any guilt in the collage either. 

In the final moment of the movie, which takes place years after Héloïse’s marriage, Marianne sees her sitting alone on the opposite balcony of an opera house as the orchestra plays the summer section of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”  Héloïse is unaware of her presence, and the camera, like Marianne, watches Héloïse’s face cycle across visages of grief, and pleasure, and surprise. They are both overcome. They are both looking back.

I am sure Eurydice knows the snake is there, lets her fingers curve along the circumference of its scales. She is trusting enough not to look. I turned toward Charlie, saw them occupied by their own thoughts, and knew that, however long I look at this costume, they will be there waiting — thinking of me. “Portrait of A Lady on Fire” invites us to see the ones we love even when we can’t, to hear them in our memory just as clearly as we would look at their face.


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