“Do all lovers feel as though they’re inventing something?” – an affectionate question Héloïse asked Marianne as the fireplace lit their faces with a delicate warmth. Indeed, throughout the narrative, the artist and her beloved develop a unique language, discovering intricate ways of talking to each other without words, through the exchange of intimate gestures and lingering looks alone. The power of art liberates these women – painting, literature, and music come together at their rescue, offering a secure, if temporary, shelter from the workings of Fate and the cruelty of men. It comes as no surprise that the most powerful of nature’s elements, fire, turns into a vivid manifestation of this fervent romance. The same way one candle destroys the entire painting, a single glance is enough for the heart to burst into flames. The annihilation of Héloïse’s previous portrait enabled Marianne to mould a new, unfeigned version. Nevertheless, Héloïse turned out to be a blazing inferno herself. With a sublime grace of a mythological Phoenix, she arose from the ashes, establishing a reciprocal connection with her beloved. The resurrection of a Lady on Fire transformed the conventional dynamics between the artist and the muse, thus producing an intense egalitarian relationship, which set both of them free. “If you look at me, who do I look at?”
Since the beginning of civilization, strong, independent women were feared and alienated by the unforgiving society. It is the mysterious unity between them, the idealistic idea of sisterhood, which, until this day, evokes awe and causes disruption in the patriarchal world. From Sappho’s poetic Lesbos to the fabled Witches’ Sabbath, the depictions of women-only gatherings are interwoven with mystery and allure. In this way, the mesmerizing bonfire scene becomes the centrepiece of a skillfully crafted composition. It feels as if the audience is being let into a secret, which becomes all the more powerful due to the enigmatic choral music, repeating an ancient Latin chant “Fugere non possum” – “We cannot escape” and culminating in a divinely high “Nos resurgemus” – “We rise,” which, according to an interview with the film’s director, may also be interpreted as a variation of a Nietzschean aphorism, the figurative headpiece of this review. Another memorable allusion to witchcraft is the “flying ointment” used by the main heroines to “make time last longer.” The mystical symbolism of “Nymphs dancing to Pan’s flute” encapsulates similar idyllic ambience: the Nymphs dance around the fire, surrounded by total darkness, following the rhythm of the flute. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, this magical instrument was made out of the musician’s lamented lover, as she transformed into reeds by the river. Throughout the narrative, another legend, Orpheus and Eurydice, retold by the same Roman poet, gradually unfolds. Thus, the enchantment of the Orphic lyre once again blends love and music, adding a bittersweet note to the impassioned masterpiece.
The fates of the film’s characters reflect the brutal reign of inequality, present throughout the world, despite the blossoming of an intellectual Enlightenment. The self-portrait of Elizabeth Nourse, a resilient painter of the bygone days, epitomizes the essence of the film: “the female gaze“ and its evolution, frequently mentioned by Céline Sciamma, which is seldom rendered in the works of men when it comes to an honest depiction of a woman. Due to this unique perspective and the absence of male observers on screen, the viewers have an unmatched opportunity of witnessing the innermost moments of women’s lives without descending into voyeurism or objectification.
Héloïse may not have as much freedom as her beloved, but she continues pursuing liberation by means of experiencing life and making valiant decisions within the scope of her private realm. Héloïse’s conventual background should also come as no surprise – even her name alludes to the eponymous French nun, acclaimed for the development of feminist representation, who had famously stated: “I preferred love to wedlock, freedom to a bond.”
Marianne represents all female artists who fought, and are still fighting, for their well-deserved place in the art world’s rigid hierarchy. Unfortunately, myriads of talented women remain forgotten, or, even worse, remembered under the names of their opposite-sex colleagues. In defiance of all circumstances, Marianne finds a way to learn and spread her knowledge to younger generations, thus regaining control over her identity and revolutionizing historical conventions.
Sophie, the servant girl, is the soul of the household. She is also prolifically creative: her embroidery, vibrant reproduction of wildflowers, which keep on blooming after the original bouquet has utterly withered, is a quintessential metaphor for Sophie’s life and for the purpose of art itself: transforming the moment into eternity. She silently endures the clandestine process of abortion, making the viewers wonder how many women have sunk into oblivion, weaving their pain into exquisite ornaments.
The Countess, regardless of her controlling nature, evokes genuine empathy: blaming herself for the loss of one daughter, she does everything in her power to protect another. Internalized misogyny explains why this woman blindly worships the institute of marriage, thus she can hardly be blamed for that orthodox belief; Héloïse’s wedding is simply a repetition of her mother’s destiny, and so the cycle goes on.
Héloïse’s Sister is an invisible, but omnipresent character, like a single thread passing through all the heroines. Her tragic death is a catalyst for the film’s events, reminding the audience of the price a woman had to pay for the freedom of choice in a patriarchal world.