Movie Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast – Episode 44c with Heather Rose Jones

A look at media that asks us to embrace the harder parts of history.

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In this episode we talk about:

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Transcript

When Portrait of a Lady on Fire came into the local theaters, my first choice would have been to find movie buddies to watch it with. My second choice was to find one or two people for an online chat, like I did for The Favourite. But, alas, no one responded to my call for interested participants. So here I am, talking to myself in front of a microphone about a movie that you definitely should go see if you’re a fan of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast.

It feels a bit silly to try to do a movie discussion show all by myself, so this is going to be more of a rumination on loving uncomfortable history, and the question of whether we’ve arrived at a point in time when even bittersweet depictions of lesbians are a joyful thing. When we don’t have to feel that anything less than unicorns and happy-ever-afters feels like tragedy.

This is already getting dangerously close to spoiler territory, so I’m going to go ahead and put up the spoiler alert. I’m going to talk about what happens in Portrait and I’m also going to talk about what happens in a book I recently consumed, The Mercies, which got me to thinking on many of the same themes. So if you’re a person who is averse to spoilers and if you have plans to watch or read either of those properties, then bookmark this podcast to come back to after you’ve done so.

Are we clear on that? No coming after me complaining that I gave things away? Is this enough time for you to hit “skip” on the podcast app if that’s what you need to do? Ok, then.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a French film, written and directed by Céline Sciamma. It’s set on an island off Brittany, in the north-west of France, in the late 18th century, though since we don’t see any hints of the French Revolution, it’s not the very end of the century. A widowed countess hires the young painter Marianne to create a portrait of her daughter Héloïse as a present–or perhaps better characterized as a job application–for the man chosen as her prospective husband. If he likes the painting, he’ll agree to marry her. The one hitch? Héloïse mustn’t know she’s being painted. The last painter gave up in despair when she refused to let him see her face. So Marianne takes on the role of attendant companion to the young noblewoman, observing her closely enough to be able to begin the painting in secret.

The movie is visually ravishing, taking advantage of locations in Brittany as well as several chateaus. The costuming is similarly lovely, featuring a few glimpses of rich court gowns, but more often the women’s everyday wear from aristocrat to peasant. At some point in the film, I realized how thoroughly focused on women it was. There are some sailors in an early scene, but the story is so completely feminine that when a male messenger arrives toward the end, it feels like a shock, and is no doubt meant to do so.

The countess becomes a background figure after explaining Marianne’s task to her and the story becomes focused on Marianne, her subject Héloïse, and the housemaid Sophie who sees to their needs. Even contact with the nearby villagers comes in the form of a women’s festival. Gradually they become a family in miniature with class differences set aside, though of course, not erased.

Romantic and sexual tension develops slowly but insistently between the two women, impeded by Marianne’s guilt over the deception about the painting and the looming knowledge that the entire purpose of her project is to further Héloïse’s marriage prospects. Their mutual confession of love and the initiation of a sexual relationship comes when you’re almost starting to be afraid you’ve been baited, but their span of idyllic happiness makes up for that tease.

OK, and here’s the real spoiler part, but an essential element for some of the themes I want to talk about. In the end, the portrait is completed with Héloïse’s cooperation, the countess approves of it, it is sent off to the prospective groom, and Marianne leaves to return to Paris and teaching painting to young ladies (the framing story at the opening of the film). In a postscript, Marianne spots another portrait of Héloïse in a gallery, showing her with her young child. Then she sees her alone at the opera, weeping at the beauty of the music (a motif that came up earlier in the film). These experiences are bittersweet but both women had accepted how the course of their lives would run.

So is this a film that draws back from embracing a happily-ever-after ending for its lesbian protagonists? Is this meant to be tragic? Here’s why I don’t see it that way.

One of the things that this film depicts solidly and authentically are class relationships between the characters. Marianne’s unmistakable status as an employee. Sophie’s unremarked duties to see to everyone else’s needs. The countess recounting her own marriage to a stranger in a foreign land, and how her goal is to see her daughter’s life follow the patterns of her own.

Let us, for a moment, imagine an 18th century story in which a young, handsome, middle-class male painter spends an extended period in the company of the young woman he is painting. In which they gradually fall in love. The ending of that story would be the same: he would complete the painting, showing the depth of his love on the canvas, then he would watch her leave to marry the foreign nobleman and be strangely comforted glimpsing her later in her married life, knowing that she found some measure of happiness and that it would never have been possible for them to be together forever.

That’s the context in which I see this movie, not as a failure to give queer characters a happy ending, but as a triumph of the normalization of queer characters in historical cinema, where they get exactly the same range of types of experiences as a straight character would. Yes, there were happy queer stories in history that could be made into movies…and I certainly hope we’ll see many of them. They’ll be different in some ways from happy straight stories, but they’re out there. But this specific story could only realistically end the way it did. It embraced that. And what that means is that we get to be normal in movies, just like everyone else.

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That brings me to the other property I want to discuss, which is The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. I included this in the new book listings in February and I’m going to repeat the cover copy that was included then.

Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Magnusdatter stands on the craggy coast, watching the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of the tiny Arctic town of Vardø must fend for themselves.  Three years later, a sinister figure arrives. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband’s authority and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God, and flooded with a mighty evil.  As Maren and Ursa are drawn to one another in ways that surprise them both, the island begins to close in on them, with Absalom’s iron rule threatening Vardø’s very existence.  Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials, The Mercies is a story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilization.

When I read an excerpt to do my micro-review post on Patreon–you do remember that I’m doing micro-reviews of the new book listings as a Patreon benefit, right? When I read it, I thought the writing was gorgeous but there was something in the rhythm of the prose that made me doubt I’d get through reading it. So on impulse I bought the audiobook and it was the best decision because the narrator made both the language and narrative style of the Norwegian setting come alive. Listening in audiobook also made it easier to keep going when I wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out, or whether the hints and promises of a sapphic relationship were going to be fulfilled.

So, again, there are going to be spoilers here.

As with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, there are elements in this plot that can only go in certain directions. But that doesn’t preclude some of those directions from avoiding outright tragedy. Maren has lived in the isolated fishing village of Vardø all her life. She has found a man she doesn’t feel too bad about marrying, though it’s clear that she has some unrecognized homoerotic urges floundering for expression. Mostly they’re expressed in something of a crush on an older, somewhat butch woman who scoffs at following gender norms when the loss of almost all the men in a storm leaves the women of Vardø to fend for themselves.

But 17th century Europe wasn’t very forgiving of overt gender non-conformity, even when necessary for survival, and when the new commissioner arrives at Vardø to hunt down heresy and sorcery, such nonconformists are an obvious target, second after the Sámi who, as non-Christians, are marked for vicious persecution.

The commissioner, very pragmatically, has picked up a Norwegian wife, but failed in some of his practical aims by choosing the sheltered daughter of a ship-owner, fallen on hard times. Ursa barely knows the basics of an urban housewife, to say nothing of being in sole charge of a rural household with no servants. She can’t turn to her husband for help–even in marriage he’s a complete stranger to her. Her need combines with Maren’s loneliness to form a fast, if unbalanced friendship. There is a sensual component to that friendship that the two women are unsure how to express until the aftermath of the emotional crisis of the witch trials and executions, which include the execution of Maren’s crush.

OK, here’s the serious spoiler section for this book. In a cathartic moment, the women engage in a sexual relationship and recognize what they’ve been leading toward for the previous year. Ursa’s husband, the commissioner, becomes suspicious and attacks Maren. In a panic, Ursa kills him. (It all feels very triumphant in the moment. He’s a real bastard.) But that act will have consequences. To protect Ursa, Maren decides to leave — to take to the wilderness and possibly find and join her Sámi sister-in-law — so that the blame will fall on her and no one else in the village will be punished. Ursa will be free to return to her father’s house. Although there is a hint of space left open for the possibility that they will find each other again later, they cannot be together at the end of the book as it stands.

As with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, though perhaps more emphatically, the structure of the plot doesn’t allow for a romantic happily-ever-after ending, but it does allow for passion, agency, revenge, and hope. Same-sex love is not punished with death, although it feels touch-and-go for a bit. And though I felt put through the emotional wringer, The Mercies left me feeling validation that the field of queer historical fiction is strong enough to tell stories like this. Stories that tackle the rough parts of history and include us in them without needing either to coddle us or to punish us for existing.

Romances with guaranteed, formula-driven happy endings are important–essential even. But they aren’t the only important type of story to tell. What I long for is the day when any story I encounter could potentially have queer characters included in it. We can’t have that if we require guarantees and promises.

And a romantic couple in a permanent bond is not the only possible way for queer people to be happy in history. Sometimes you find it in recognizing and acknowledging your desires. Sometimes you find it in holding close and then letting go, knowing the joy you took will stay with you. Sometimes you find it in hefting up a stone rolling pin and claiming your freedom.