Below are the remarks from the January 21, 2020 “Off the Couch” viewing of Portrait of a Lady on Fire with Igor Weinberg, PhD, psychotherapy student member of BPSI. “Off the Couch” is part of a decades-long collaboration between The Coolidge Cinema and BPSI.

“France, 1760. Marianne is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of Héloïse, a young woman who has just left the convent. Because she is a reluctant bride-to-be, Marianne arrives under the guise of companionship, observing Héloïse by day and secretly painting her by firelight at night. As the two women orbit one another, intimacy and attraction grow as they share Héloïse’s first moments of freedom. Héloïse’s portrait soon becomes a collaborative act of and testament to their love.”

Lilies Films

The movie unfolds in the 18th century when Marianne, the painter, is commissioned to paint Heloise, betrothed to an Italian aristocrat.  Heloise is not agreeing to marry him and so Marianne is expected to paint in secret, misrepresenting herself as a companion, while observing Heloise.

Unable to bear complexities of secrecy of her creation, she decided to confess and thus discloses the real purpose of her stay. Unexpectedly to her mother, Heloise agrees now to pose for her portrait and a passionate, but ultimately tragic, romance develops between two women.

One might be struck by a few themes in the movie.

  1. The dialectics of the gaze. The process of painting requires capturing the essence of Heloise. Looking opens an opportunity for being seen, but also runs the risk of being misperceived. Thus, Heloise alludes to a necessarily subjective nature of painting. The portrait captures different aspects of Heloise and becomes an integration of her fleeting aspects. Heloise articulates her dissatisfaction with the painting and the rules of painting, to which Marianne is referring. In doing so, she underscores the risk of misrepresentation of her. In fact, her dislike of the first portrait sways Marianne to destroy it. The prospects of accurately portraying Heloise are not without a risk either. The portrait serves an important function in the planned marriage, to which she is resisting.
    This dialectic is further elaborated by a repeated allusion to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in which Orpheus is forbidden to look at Eurydice, but unable to resist and thus loses her for eternity. Looking is a part of the creation process and helps with the painting. It can also spark a romance – Heloise referencing Marianne’s looking when she realizes that those looks were designed to help with the painting, as opposed to expressions of interest, as she had surmised. However, looking can also lead to a portrait that is misrepresenting the person or, like, in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice can have a destructive power. In the movie, making an accurate painting leads to the end of the relationship as it fulfills one of the expectations of the betrothal agreement.
  2. The role of transgression and secret. All four women are engaging is some transgressive secretive behaviors. The mother is hiring Marianne in secret, while Marianne is expected to paint in secret and in violation of the wishes of Heloise. Sophie is pregnant, keeping her unwanted pregnancy secret and opting for abortion when the mother is away. Marianne and Heloise are starting an affair while Heloise is betrothed and when her mother is away. Secret has a role in the power differential – at first, the mother is hiring Marianne to paint Heloise in secret, but then Heloise starts an affair with Marianne in secret from her mother.
  3. The dialectics of water and fire. The theme of water and fire is woven into the movie. Marianne is introduced to us with different references of water. She came by water and had to jump into the sea to rescue her equipment. Heloise is introduced with a reference to the fire, with a dramatic scene of her dress being on fire.
    Fire and water symbolize creativity, life and fertility in different culture. But they also bring destruction – fire can evaporate water and water can extinguish fire. The complementary and contrasting nature of water and fire create a similar dialectic of creativity and destruction that we have already noticed in regarding to the gaze.
    The director adds an interesting touch by referencing Vivaldi’s Summer Concerto from Four Seasons. The concerto has been interpreted by many as a portrayal of the rain (hail storm is referenced in the lyrics that originally accompanied the concerto) – yet another reference to water, introduced by Marianne. It becomes a metaphorical representation of the romance in the final scene and is used to capture the development and the loss of the relationship they have had.

It is as if the themes come together in the dialectics of the love and absence. The love between Marianne and Heloise is forbidden and has no future from the beginning, though it persists. The passion of their feelings is fueled by the absence of the other. In that way it shows that love transcends rules, times and space. Because of those rules Marianne and Heloise are away from each other and the absence adds a passionate note to their feelings. This is alluded to in what they call “poetic” reinterpretation of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. However, the movie makes is seem that is not just an interpretation, but a vicissitudes of their love.

Igor Weinberg, PhD is a Psychotherapy Student Member, and Faculty of the Explorations in Mind program, BPSI; Associate Psychologist, McLean Hospital; Assistant Professor, Harvard Medical School.

Igor Weinberg can be contacted by email here.


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