Note: A great person once said “everything is a spoiler ” if you believe in that theory, spoilers ahead!!!
The portrait of a lady on fire uses the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a reference. Orpheus plays the lyre at hades to get his dead lover Eurydice back to life. The gods agree with that on one condition that he must not turn back till he enters the realm of earth and Eurydice will follow him as a shadow, if he turns she will return to the underworld. Orpheus does turn back and Eurydice will never return to him. This story of immortal love stays true for the film, in the love story of these women Marianne and Héloïse.
Marianne is a portrait artists who goes to Brittany to paint a portrait of the daughter of a countess I.e., Héloïse. Her sister dies because of an accident and now she becomes the bride of her fiancée. Her mother the countess wants Marianne to breathe some life into her daughter in the form of a portrait; so that it can impress the noble man she is going to marry and move to Milan. But she has to do it without the knowledge of Héloïse. So, she becomes her walking mate, observes her and paints her every day. The element of artistic brilliance comes into this film now, the way she observes and sketches her is symbolically juxtaposed with them having deep conversations with each other and knowing each other deeper into the layers just like the stages of a painting and What follows by is a beautiful love story.
Like Orpheus Marianne too breathes some life into the dejected Héloïse in a sequence where she plays the piano for her. This particular sequence stands out with the frames looking like painting combined with the music, this makes you feel like you are in a renaissance art appreciation class. Héloïse reads the story of Orpheus and Eurydice and remarks “maybe she wanted to say a goodbye”. I think there lies the message of this film, learning to appreciate every part of a relationship, including the longing and what’s followed by. The character of Sophie who is a caretaker of the countess’ guest house acts as a telescope which brings both the characters together. It is because of the truths she reveal about Héloïse, Marianne gets to know her in a deeper way. Both of them like doting mothers deal with a situation Sophie is facing and take care of her.
The visual representation of the title comes in a very key sequence where both the lovers sing and dance with a group of women alongside the shore. The fire ignited in front of Héloïse stands as a visual representation for the passion they share for each other. The performances by Noémie Merlant and Adèle Hanel won’t let you take your eyes off the screen, they give you tough time deciding whom to observe in the scenes they are together. Their relationship makes you go through a lot of emotions along with them. The film also acts as a mirror to the times it is set in with social representation of the position of women in 18th century. The only way the society feels they can advance their social position is marrying a noble man. Parental pressure for marriage, teenage pregnancies and the taboo associated with same sex relationships are hard hitting, these are the things which still exists in some societies and this film points it out in a subtle way, making this story set in 18th century relevant in today’s time.
The performance by Adèle Hanel in the climax moved me emotionally and made my eyes blur for a moment. And I believe that’s what art is capable of doing, make us empathize with people. And no the applause shouldn’t be for the Cannes logo, but for the indelible mark this movie leaves on the watchers. The applause at the end of the film by the audience justifies that art is universal.