Portrait of a Lady on Fire

· mumblings ·

I look at you and see
My life that might have been
Your face just ghostly in the smoke
They’re setting fire to the cornfields
As you’re taking me home
The smell of burning fields
Will now mean you and here


Ooh, the thrill and the hurting
The thrill and the hurting
I know that this will never be mine


I want you as the dream
Not the reality

— ‘Never Be Mine’ by Kate Bush

Great works of art (of all kinds) have a tendency to make you think, and to encourage your mind to make connections which you might not have thought about before. Yesterday I watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire and absolutely loved it. I can’t stop thinking about it and it has made all sorts of interesting links in my mind.

I don’t think I am spoiling the plot to reveal that there’s a scene in which the lady of the title (Héloïse), the artist Marianne, and the maid Sophie read the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and discuss why — when Orpheus had been specifically warned not to look back at his wife Eurydice until they were free of the Underworld, or she would die a second time — he did exactly that, just when they were both nearly safe.

Now this is wonderful on all sorts of levels. In a film that is all about the female gaze, a story that hinges on the (literally!) lethal male gaze is a lovely inclusion. It also reminded me that I had listened to a Natalie Haynes Stands Up For the Classics episode (a fascinating and funny show, by the way), in which she discusses Eurydice. Interestingly, she contrasts Virgil’s version, in which Eurydice tells her own story, with that of Ovid, in which she has almost no voice1. That made me wonder which version the women were reading in the film, and whether that was a deliberate choice on the part of the film maker.

In the film, Sophie is (rightly, in my mind) outraged that Orpheus could not just do what he was he was told for five minutes, leaving poor Eurydice to pay the price. Héloïse is inclined to give Orpheus the benefit of the doubt, arguing that he is so madly in love with her that he could not help himself. Marianne agrees with Sophie, but thinks that he made a choice between being a loving husband or a tragic poet. She says, “He doesn’t make the lover’s choice but the poet’s.”

That struck all sorts of chords with me, and made me think of the lyrics of Kate Bush’s ‘Never Be Mine’. Fire and smoke is a theme in all three: Natalie quoted a line from Virgil describing Eurydice’s death — “She disappears like smoke on the breeze” — and fire is an obvious theme in the film. Sophie and Marianne’s view of Orpheus also fits with him being addicted to “the thrill and the hurting” of the song. She is fuel for his creativity and it serves him better to have her “as the dream/not the reality”, and to let the pain of her loss fire up his music. It also make me wonder for the first time whether Kate had the Orpheus and Eurydice myth in her mind when she wrote the song.

The entire film is engrossing, but the last five or ten minutes is mesmerising, and (without giving any spoilers) it returns to some of these themes again in a very subtle and beautiful way.

  1. I think I got those the right way around, but do let me know Classics scholars if I messed it up! ↩︎