Exploring Boundaries Between Art and Life in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

By Aimee Morrissey

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"Auguste Rodin - Orpheus et Eurydice" by Koen James Woldringh (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Is art separate from the artist? The rise of recent social movements such as #MeToo and discussions around “cancel culture” movements have reanimated the debate surrounding this perennial question. The question was raised again recently when, in 2020, film director Roman Polanski won “Best Director” at the prominent César awards ceremony in France. The win was immediately met with controversy due to Polanski’s troubling personal life. A convicted pedophile and rapist, the director has been living in exile since the 1970s to avoid criminal sentencing. French icon Brigette Bardot is among those who immediately defended Polanski’s accolade. Bardot shared on social media, “I judge him on his talent and not his private life! I regret never having shot with him!” (Hernandez). Less accepting than Bardot were film director Céline Sciamma and actress Adèle Haenel, both attendees at the César ceremony for their own film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. After Polanski was named “Best Director,” Sciamma and Haenel walked out of the ceremony in an act of protest. Sciamma and Haenel represent the opinion of many that believe Polanski’s personal life overshadows his professional work. This belief, that works of art are inextricably linked to the lives of their creator, is a claim that I argue is further reinforced in Portrait of a Lady on Fire itself. Through the cinematic account of a romance that develops between an artist and her muse, the private lives of the characters become entangled in the visual, musical, and literary artforms they create and consume, just as the film as a whole is shaped by the personal experiences of the director Sciamma and actress Haenel. The interlaced mediums blur the boundary between art and life, ultimately suggesting that art cannot be separated from the life of the artist.

One method Portrait of a Lady on Fire uses to illustrate the inextricable link between life and art is through its contrasting two actual portraits painted of Heloise that are featured in the film. The film follows the brief love affair between Marianne (Noémie Merlant), an eighteenth-century artist, and her subject Heloise (Adèle Haenel), a young aristocratic woman, after Marianne is commissioned to paint a portrait of Heloise for her arranged marriage. Heloise refuses this marriage to an unknown man and rebuffs the idea of sitting for a customary wedding portrait. Marianne is consequently instructed to secretly paint Heloise from memory in between the time they spend together. When Marianne finishes the first portrait, she reveals to Heloise the true reason for her sudden appearance at the castle and shows her the art. Heloise examines it and remarks, “Is this how you see me? … Is there no life? No presence?” Heloise’s negative reaction becomes the impetus for Marianne to paint a second, more true-to-life painting that Heloise agrees to pose for this time. The increasing amount of time the two women spend together allows for a romance to develop between the pair, and their love affair quickly becomes part of the art. Marianne trashes her original painting, which is noticeably dull because Marianne barely knows her subject Heloise. The final portrait of Heloise is only complete in the film after the two women’s affair, giving Marianne the ability to paint her own emotions and personal experiences into the art with each brushstroke. Through having two versions of Heloise’s portrait, a lackluster one being painted before the relationship, and the true masterpiece after, the film contrasts the difference between a portrait lacking personal connection versus art created with memory and life experience in mind.

Moreover, the narrative of the film is presented as a memory of Marianne’s unleashed by her gaze at a titular portrait, suggesting that her personal experience is intimately connected to the art she creates. The film opens with Marianne teaching a group of schoolgirls how to paint. A student brings out one of Marianne’s old pieces, a painting thatshares the name of the film itself. Looking at this art, which depicts a scene from Marianne and Heloise’s affair, sends Marianne into an intense and emotional flashback of their time spent together that lasts the entirety of the film. The audience is not aware that this work, a composition of a woman standing at dusk with her dress caught on fire, is a recreation of reality until later in the movie, but it is immediately apparent that the art is extremely sentimental toMarianne. She becomes visibly distraught at the sight of the portrait and devolves into her memories of the experiences behind the painting. Symbolically, the fire on the subject of her affection represents the artist and muse’s brief but passionate relationship. Marianne’s visual work of art carries a vivid connection to her life, as it is a literal recreation of her past, but even glancing at the painting after so many years is such a passionate experience that it makes these memories feel like the present. Beyond just the relationship between Marianne and the Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the film is a work of art itself, and so by the mode that the film begins, a flashback provoked by art, Sciamma further reinforces the thematic dependence of art, whether film or painting, on the life experiences of the creator.

Just as the titular portrait demonstrates the communion of personal experience and art within the film, the imposition of intimate sketches created by Marianne throughout the affair– sketches that serve as the women’s love language– similarly reinforces the indivisible connection between art and artist. In one instance, Marianne draws Heloise sleeping, and Heloise asks Marianne to draw a self-portrait for Heloise to keep as a memory of their relationship. Marianne is shot laying naked, copying down her reflection onto page twenty-eight of a book she gave Heloise from a small round mirror skillfully placed over Heloise’s crotch. The presence of art within these intimate moments makes it a sort of “pillow-talk” between the two lovers. The placement of the mirror from which Marianne uses to sketch a self-portrait symbolizes the blend between the intimacy of their lives and the art created in the scene. Despite being a romance movie, there is a lack of explicit sex scenes. Instead, these racy sketches shot as the women lounge naked in bed are the closest the film touches to scenes of physical connection. The art created in these moments replaces sex as the manifestation of their passions. Heloise asks for a picture of her lover because she knows the art will retain the memory of their affair and this moment long after it is over. The action of creating art replaces conventional displays of physical intimacy for the couple, becoming foundational to their shared experience.

The final portrait of Heloise featured in the film, although not painted by Marianne, also communicates a personal message to her that reminds her of their shared past, further establishing the intrinsic connection between the creation of art and the real-world context that informed that art present in the film. Long after the affair has ended, Marianne stumbles upon a portrait of Heloise painted by another artist on display at an art gallery. In the painting, Heloise is now older and seated next to a young girl presumed to be her daughter. Marianne notices that in the painting,Heloise is holding open page twenty-eight of the same book that Marianne gave her—the page with her sketch. Despite the fact that this aged version of Heloise is very different from the young woman that Marianne knew, and despite the fact that the artist of this piece is seemingly unaware of the personal significance page twenty-eight holds, the subject’s private life is still discernible in the artwork. Thus, the full meaning of the portrait cannot be appreciated without the context of the subject’s life simultaneously being acknowledged. Even the smallest details that guide the creation of art are influenced by the lives of those involved in it.

Page twenty-eight of Heloise’s book points to an additional way Portrait of a Lady on Fire works to obscure the divide between real life and art. The book Marianne gave to Heloise, and thus the one Heloise holds in her final portrait, is Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Page twenty-eight of the novel features “the Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice,” a tragic love story in which Orpheus attempts to rescue his bride Eurydice from the underworld. In the myth, Orpheus prematurely turns around to look at Eurydice before they have escaped the underworld despite Hades warnings, and as a result of this gaze, Eurydice is swept back into the underworld for eternity. In the film, Marianne and Heloise debate over their countering interpretations of the myth. Marianne explains that Orpheus must have turned in order to preserve the memory of his muse by having one perfect glance, while Heloise retorts that maybe Eurydice was the one who called out for Orpheus to turn back. This image of Orpheus and Eurydice is replicated in Marianne and Heloise’s goodbye scene and later in Marianne’s art. When Marianne is forced to depart Heloise, she runs out of the castle in heartbreak. Heloise calls for Marianne to turn around, and the audience, visually placed in Marianne’s point of view, catches a final immaculate glimpse of Heloise dressed in her wedding gown. This moment from Marianne’s life thus mirrors that of the myth.

The mirroring alone does not convey much about the inseparable relationship between art and the art—that is, until Marianne illustrates that moment in a portrait that she displays at an art gallery towards the end of the film. In this piece, Marianne illustrates the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and Eurydice's pose and white dresses recall the final moment between Marianne and Heloise. A viewer at the gallery remarks to Marianne, “Usually, he [Orpheus] is portrayed before he turns, or after Eurydice dies. Here, they seem to be saying goodbye.” The peculiar posing noted by the spectator notes is a result of the fact that this painting is an imitation of a scene from the artist’s own past, of her and Heloise staring at each other at the end of their affair. Thus, the boundary between art and real-life is difficult to discern as Marianne and Heloise’s goodbye scene simultaneously becomes a reenactment of a myth and inspiration for future art, again proving that art is so connected to the life of its artist that it is hard to differentiate the two. Art inspires life inspires art.

The film’s repeated use of music further supplements the thematic inseparability between art and the artist recurrent in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The soundtrack of the film is primarily composed of the simple sounds of everyday life, which contrasts sharply with the sole dramatic musical score that persists throughout the film: the Presto movement from the “Summer” section of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” Marianne introduces this song to Heloise, who has been sheltered away in a convent for her entire life. Although in actuality it was Vivaldi, and not Marianne, who composed this piece, Marianne nevertheless becomes its artist-of-sorts in the film as it is her movements that unfold the stunning melody on the piano. Marianne is especially the artist of this piece to Heloise, who is experiencing this art for the first time ever through Marianne. When the song appears again in the final scene, it is through an orchestral performance of “The Four Seasons” attended by both, although separately, Marianne and Heloise. Marianne spots Heloise in the crowd, although Heloise does not notice her back. The final moments of the film are spent watching Heloise's facial expressions as the Presto is played, and as her face descends into tears of grief, it is clear it holds for her the memory of her lover Marianne first playing this song on the piano, the artist playing her art, their life together contained in this musical piece. Heloise’s emotional breakdown is not just a product of the song, but of her reliving the memories of her first encounter with the song and the affair that followed. The song, for Heloise, can thus not be separated from the musician; quite the contrary, the piece gains its power over her as a result of her deep knowledge and love for the artist who played it for her.

Just as artistic facets within the narrative indicate an interdependence between art and the artist, the film has a similar relationship with its creator, as she wove her own background into the work. Sciamma has confirmed that Portrait of a Lady on Fire mirrors her own past relationship with the actress, Adele Haenel, who plays Heloise. Julie Miller points out in her Vanity Fair article about the film, “But even though there was a full crew on set, there were moments during filming—when Sciamma was essentially filming a portrait of someone painting a portrait of someone she had once loved—that felt like ‘a Russian doll situation.’” The art within the plot of the film holds much significance to the characters, but the film as art itself is layered with meaning from the director’s own life. The casting, plotline, and other aspects of this cinematic art piece, according to Sciamma, were “mirrored, in certain ways, in their own romance.” (Miller). Thus, Sciamma’s role as the artist of the film, her personal relationship to Haenel, and the story told within the film even more deeply indicate that the life of the artist cannot be separated from their art.

In all these ways, then, Sciamma proves that art is so tied to the artist that it cannot be separated. The line dividing art and reality is not definite, and there is considerable blending and mimicking of the two within the film through its visual, literary, and musical elements, as through the film itself. The theory of Mimesis states that all art is an imitation of nature (Britannica). The Portrait of a Lady on Fire provides support for this philosophical idea, as everything has some greater significance to life and the artist. This connection or mimesis, though, has broader implications in the world. If art is so closely informed by the life of the artist, can we admire the work of evil people? The film and its director seem to answer “no.” Haenel herself has taken on a forerunner position in the #MeToo movement in the French film industry. A victim of sexual abuse as a child by another film director, the celebration of Polanski or those like him strikes a personal chord for the actress, and, according to Haenel, it was only her relationship with Sciamma that saved her (Miller). Instead of viewing the inextricable link between art and the life of its artist as a wholly destructive force, then, the healing relationship between Sciamma and Haenel that inspired Portrait of a Lady on Fire suggests an alternative perspective in which the coalescence of artist and art can highlight art’s ability to nurture and bring beauty to its creator.