God save me from ever becoming an artist.
Okay, this is already a lie. Aside from the obvious hypocrisy (writers are artists, aren’t they?), I wasn’t thinking any such thing. I was thinking much more in-the-moment thoughts, about the richness of the mise-en-scene and the beauty of the actresses; watching the subtitles but listening to the French to see if the ladies ever called each other tu rather than vous (I’ve read reviews that claim they do, only once, but I must have missed it), and thinking this popcorn is too salty.
Above all, I was holding my girlfriends hand while we watched the lesbian film sensation of the year, so I was thinking about love, and romance, and that sort of thing. How very in love I was with my girlfriend, who, like Marianne, was an artist. I didn’t feel nearly as suitable for the role of muse as Heloise was, even though I knew my girlfriend had written about me— or at least subtext about me and our relationship— in a screenplay, a novel-length piece of fan fiction, and at least one poem (none of which I had been allowed to read). Even so, I saw a lot of us in those two women: the prodigious and prestigious brunette artist, talented and daring, but struggling to face the messy, frightening realities of interpersonal love; and the blonde, who has little artistry about her but who makes up for it, or so she hopes, in spiritedness, in enthusiasm, in an inextinguishable fiery certainty about what she wants out of life. If she has not enough talent to be an artist or even to know much about art, she at least pours as much creative passion into the making of her life as she can, within its narrow confines, trying to be worthy of the eyes that behold her, even as she pushes against being looked at, being an object to be perceived and judged and represented.
My girlfriend and I seemed to be on the same page for much of the film: we both loved the pregnant third-wheel and confidante Sophie, we both greatly admired the scene where Marianne and Heloise attend a servant women’s bonfire gathering and engage in some hauntingly gorgeous A cappella, we were both listening for the French pronouns, which reveal so much about a relationship. But we emerged from the theatre reacting, emotionally, a very different way. My girlfriend had tears on their face— which was often the case (“I’m a Cancer, okay! We can’t help it!”); I, however, was more angry at the ending of the film than sad.
I remember walking home and arguing vociferously— “Hear me out, okay? It didn’t have to be like that. Listen, back in the day, people didn’t even think lesbian sex was a thing. You could get away with it. So Heloise goes and marries a Medici or whatever, right? But Marianne is this international artist, and Milan is a big hot spot for the arts. She’s gonna be in the neighbourhood. And we know Mr. Heloise is into having his wife painted again. It would not have been that hard for Heloise to say, hey honey? You know the portrait of me that made you want to marry me, the portrait where I look super hot? I’m very partial to that painter, actually. Let me give you her card. Extremely professional. Does a great job. She requires me to sit for long, long hours, though, absolutely uninterrupted. Crucial to the process. But it’ll all pay off when you see how great the portrait is. See? Easy! Absolutely no need for this dramatic and we’ll never see each other again! bullshit. If they really wanted to stay together it would NOT have been that hard.”
My girlfriend listened and quietly asked me to consider that the logistics of the affair were not the point. Was not the long shot of Heloise crying at the end exquisite? Maybe, but I still thought it showed a flair for the unnecessarily fatalistic and pessimistic that we often see in gay movies. Gay love stories never get to end in breakups where we’re optimistic that the characters will love again; the implication is always that they had one chance at love in their lives, and they blew it.
I felt about this long shot of Heloise crying to Vivaldi the way I felt about the end shot of Timothée Chalamet crying to Sufjan Stevens at the end of Call Me By Your Name. I’m sure Elio would have cried for a very long time, but ending the film on his tears to me gives the whole story a needlessly depressing conclusion. I refuse to believe that the handsome, spirited and dynamic Elio would not get over his 6-week teen summer fling. I think it likely that by the time he heads off to college in a year or so he’ll be more than ready to start looking for love again, and with those cheekbones (and the fact that his rich parents probably send him to Oxford, whose student body, popular literature would have me believe, is almost entirely gay guys in waistcoats) he’ll probably find it. I am angry that Call Me By Your Name doesn’t want us to believe that Elio will move on; and now I am angry because I don’t think Heloise should have to move on at all.
Okay, my girlfriend said; but that isn’t the point.
Within the week, my artist girlfriend would tell me, over the phone, that they didn’t love me anymore and hadn’t for a while. Within two weeks, I’d be in lockdown with my parents, lamenting that the last movie I’d seen in theatres in the functional world was one I’d watched on what was to be the last date ever with someone I had once discussed wedding venues with, but now wasn’t even Facebook friends with. Who, even as they held my hand that day, was trying to think of a good way to end it. In the months to come, I would think of Portrait of a Lady On Fire a great deal, as both my last date and my last trip to the cinema. While trying to process the end of a real-life love story I’d been writing in my heart since 2017, as well as the horror and anxiety of a global pandemic, I started to see what my ex had meant: the logistics really aren’t the point. The point isn’t that Marianne could have stayed with Heloise if she wanted to— the point is that Marianne clearly didn’t want to.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a love story, but the key word isn’t love. The key word is story. Just so, the film isn’t about the love of a lady on fire: it’s about the portrait.
So back to my original point: if you’re an artist, fuck you.
Okay, okay. I can feel you making a disgusted little sound in the back of your throat, getting ready to close the tab, so I’ll backpedal a bit. There are artists, and there are Artists. Only capital-A Artists, in my book, need fuck off; so just pat yourself on the back, assume you’re one of the lower-case good guys, and read on to find out what I’m talking about.
An artist is a person who makes art, plain and simple. An Artist, I’ve decided, is a person whose art is their entire identity. It is not something that they do, as a hobby, a passion or a career; it is them. The dudebro poet you met at your friend’s apartment party who misquoted Neruda at you and told you all about Raw Denim subculture is an Artist. The rock star who sleeps with his prettiest groupie, writes songs about her that make her believe that he loves her, but after a year of marriage brings her to realize she’s been playing second fiddle to his real love, the guitar, is an Artist. My long-distance-ex-girlfriend, who wrote five thousand words a day during our very limited visits and then cried about how our relationship wouldn’t work out because we didn’t have enough time to spend together, and turned their guilt about having broken my heart (in especially drawn-out, painful, humiliating and expensive ways, twice, in two years) into a screenplay for their seminar, is an Artist. And Marianne from Portrait of a Lady on Fire, who can’t commit to a little biannual adultery during her Milanese tours, but can commit to channeling her pain into a groundbreaking Orpheus painting and a few haunting landscapes, is an Artist. For artists, art is something that they do; for Artists, art is something that they are, and the other aspects of their lives are not as important. Sometimes those aspects must suffer for sake of the art.
While I was sorting through these feelings and nursing my heartbreak in quarantine, I ravenously re-watched The Good Place (stopping right before they wipe Chidi’s memory, because fuck that shit), New Girl, Mad Men, all the best (and worst) rom-coms of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, movies that made me laugh like a loon as a kid, like Shrek, Madagascar, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the one with Jim Carrey, which I maintain is one of the funniest movies of all time), Dirty Dancing, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, and basically every comedy special on Netflix. It got so that I would lie in bed and recite Trevor Noah monologues to myself before I fell asleep to avoid thinking about my actual life. It seemed like a bit of cruel irony to me that there is so much comfort to be derived from art, but almost none to be had from artists (or rather, Artists) themselves.
Everyone loves artists, though. Musicians especially— every girl in high school wants to date a guy in the band. Every girl in college kind of does, too. Artists are sexy. Poets are so in touch with their emotions. Guitarists and pianists are obviously really good with their hands. And we’ve probably all wanted a visual artist who looks like Leonardo DiCaprio in his 20’s to draw us like one of his French girls.
Yet again, stereotypes of the artist as bad friend, bad lover, bad spouse, bad parent and bad colleague abound. There are enough memoirs on the market by the wives— and ex-wives— and women who wisely did not become wives— of rock stars to know that these stereotypes are not totally unfounded. That goes for other mediums, too. For every Jack Dawson in Titanic we have the guy Christoph Waltz plays in Big Eyes. For every sensitive and sweet Keats-like dream beau (I’m picturing Ben Whishaw in Bright Star) we have a literary spouse like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. We have this idea that art, or at least art that makes you successful, corrupts your personal life. Some might argue that it’s the fame that ruins marriages, but I don’t think it’s just the fame. It’s not the product that terrorizes Shelley Duvall in the Overlook Hotel— it’s the process.
Obviously, Marianne (and, I must give credit— my ex) is not the kind of monstrous Artist we see in these extreme examples (while both breakups were pretty painful, neither involved an axe). But being a painter doesn’t make Marianne a great girlfriend, either. She spends as much of the movie pulling away from Heloise as she does coming towards her, and at the end of the film she decides to pull away for a final time, choosing the portrait over the lady. Marianne will surely have a brilliant career, and sometimes she’ll even go to Milan, where she’ll spy on her ex-girlfriend at the opera house but never approach to say hello. Heloise will not know she is being looked at; her pain will become not a collaborative phenomenon but, in the end, only a spectacle, an object, a portrait of a lady rather than the lady herself. For all her fighting to be acknowledged, to be interacted with, to be listened to, at the end of the movie she is reduced to something that is looked at.
Elio’s last crying jag doesn’t hurt me, or infuriate me, as much as this does. Heloise is not going to go to Oxford and meet some hottie and get over her first love. Heloise is going to dress in fine fabrics and be paraded about Milan, sit for second-rate male painters who water down the sharpness of her features, and be looked at, endlessly, on the canvas and in the flesh. Her ex-girlfriend won’t save her from the torment of this unrelenting gaze—in fact, Marianne is going to look, too. I think of Kate Winslet in Titanic, saying she feels as though she’s always screaming, and no one is looking up.
I think, too, of Eurydice, whose husband Orpheus, Marianne points out, makes the poet’s choice to look at the ghost of his wife, rather than the lover’s choice to save her. Orpheus suffers for his choice, he grieves for his choice— but Eurydice dies for it. Heloise, too, is doomed to wander the earth knowing that everyone wants to look at her, but no one wants to save her, and no one is going to love her. They love her in the portrait, but no one wants what she brings to the earth as a living, breathing, burning being. Marianne is no better than any of the other voyeurs: she chose the portrait rather than the lady, and now that lady’s fire is going out.
One thing I heard people say about this film was that Celine Sciamma showed the world that you could make a lesbian movie without pandering to, or replicating, the male gaze. I think that’s true, in that the camera looks respectfully on Marianne and Heloise, even in their nakedness. The male gaze is not present in the camera. In fact, throughout most of the film, there is no male gaze at all, simply because there are no men. But this film is not free of harmful gazes. Marianne is forever looking at Heloise, objectifying her— which is, of course, her job, to turn Heloise into an object for consumption—by, in fact, the eyes of men. There are no men currently on the island to look, but Marianne is painting for a future male gaze, and thus training her eyes on Heloise as a conduit for that gaze. What shakes her is that Heloise doesn’t just sit and let herself be seen. Heloise looks— and talks— back. And it is that which Marianne falls in love with. It is also that which, ultimately, either fails to keep Marianne enthralled, or, depending on your interpretation, that scares Marianne off.
This duality was something that was easy for me to project upon when my ex told me tearfully that they had always felt honoured to date someone as emotionally “effusive” as I was. At that backhanded compliment, I felt myself becoming the crazy ex-girlfriend in their future cocktail party anecdotes. What made me fun and lovable was also what made me a bad investment for the future.
If Marianne is an Artist, then I hope never to be one myself. I will be, I hope, a lower-case-A artist. When it is safe to date again, I would even consider dating a lower-case-A artist (though in the early days of heartbreak I remember declaring bitterly that my next girlfriend would be in STEM, no exceptions).
Maybe my philosophy of art, as inspired by how much I have come to hate Marianne from Portrait of a Lady on Fire, makes me sound like a slacker— I will never devote myself and my life to my art, the way my ex has, the way Marianne did, the way so many of our great-on-the-stage but famously bad-in-real-life Artists did.
Maybe I am a slacker. Maybe I’ll never make something of myself. But I still feel that art should serve to enrich our lives, not vice versa. I don’t live for my art; my art lives for me. And if I ever get to a point where making art doesn’t make me happy, doesn’t make my life better, causes me (or others) more pain than would otherwise be felt, I hope I have the good sense to abandon art altogether. Art is a fantastic way to process pain and cope with heartbreak, but it is not worth causing more heartbreak for. Sure, Marianne painted a beautiful landscape with a lady burning in the dark night, and all of her students appreciate it— but she also condemned the woman who loved her to a bleak, loveless heterosexual wasteland. Marianne herself seems to live joylessly now, too— something her students can also see. If Marianne had decided to pursue her relationship with Heloise, to fight for love, she might have lost some great and very poignant additions to her portfolio. But is that how we measure the success of our lives? The French expression, il faut souffrir pour être belle (“one must suffer in order to be beautiful”) comes to mind. If great art necessitates great suffering, why not settle for a little happy mediocrity? How important is beauty to us, if it comes at such a cost?
The second time I watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the conditions were very different from my first date-night viewing. I re-watched it on my dusty, smudgy laptop screen, in bed, in the middle of the night, alone, eating Hawkins Cheezies (a tasteless but addictive snack that has been a quarantine staple for me). There were several points in the movie when I was tempted to boo and throw cheezies at the screen, especially whenever Marianne was speaking.
There were other moments, however, that struck me, that made my heart swell and ache. These were all Heloise moments. When Marianne asks Heloise if she wanted to die, and Heloise answers that she wanted to run. When Heloise condemns Marianne’s first portrait of her— not only because the saccharine expression on the painted face is inaccurate, but because of the betrayal, the fact that Marianne is secretly involved in the project of marrying Heloise off against her will. And of course, that long shot at the end of Heloise listening to Vivaldi and obviously doing what is supposed to be ugly-crying, though Adele Haenel, despite all her talent, doesn’t manage to make it look ugly at all.
For essentially the entirety of the film, Heloise knows she is being cast into the Underworld, like Eurydice, but she isn’t passively fading into oblivion. She refuses to be quietly dead. She can’t stop the eyes from looking at her, but she can decide what they are going to see. And for all her running, scowling, unladylike laughing, grinning, her carelessness when her dress is on fire, and this last public display of raw, unfiltered emotion, Heloise shows us that she is nobody’s portrait of her. She is unapologetically, and sometimes abrasively, herself.
Watching her heartbreak, and her refusal to bear it meekly (even if she does bear it stoically), made me want to reach through the screen and grab her hand in a gesture of solidarity, the sisterhood of the abandoned and forsaken. On the other side of the screen, I was just another pair of eyes, but I wanted to be a pair of hands, a pair of arms to hug her with, I wanted to be a pair of ears to listen and a voice to respond. I wanted to tell her, you are still on fire. You are so much more than a sad story in someone’s eyes or a beautiful piece in their portfolio. You, yourself, have agency. You are not an Artist, but you are not art, either. You are something of your own making, you are your own passionate creator. You can’t stop them from looking at you, but you can keep looking right back. Remind them that that gaze goes two ways. And that you will never consent to be the picture they want, or expect, to see.
Maybe choosing art over love is the wise choice. Marianne chose the consolation prize of career over the dazzling once-in-a-lifetime chance at love. Heloise has lined up no consolation prize for herself. She was never going to settle for less than life itself; a painting of it was never going to suffice.
But now she has nothing, an empty life, a husband she dreaded to marry, a portrait of her at an exhibition where she looks like a sweet and expressionless doll. Her ex-girlfriend gets to go on to fame and glory, capitalizing handsomely off their shared sorrow, while Heloise sits entombed within compulsory heterosexuality, with no creative outlet to ease her pain.
What lesson are we supposed to take away from this? Heloise was the freer spirit. She had been brave. But Marianne is the one who gets to walk free and make something of herself. Marianne, the coward, who, like Orpheus, made the poets’ choice rather than the lovers’ choice. And Heloise, who never got to choose, but still had to suffer the consequences.
I’m not saying you should choose your love over your art. But no one was asking Orpheus to put down his harp. All he had to do was keep his eyes closed a little longer.
In lockdown with a broken heart, it was pretty hard to see any consolation prize for myself. All the listicles I looked up with titles like How to get over a breakup— FAST! suggested things like dressing up and going out dancing, hugging all your friends, and going on a vacation. It looked like I wasn’t going to be getting over anything fast. After my utterly draining re-watch of Portrait of a Lady on Fire I put on Dirty Dancing again, and then got up off of my bed and danced along in my dark bedroom. I felt like Heloise right now, but I knew I wasn’t going to be her. Sure, maybe I wouldn’t have my art in the exhibition, I wouldn’t get famous and turn my pain into creative fodder, maybe I wouldn’t be able to channel all this into a really fantastic screenplay. But I wasn’t going to marry some Milanese blowhard or let anyone draw me like a French girl and then leave me for dead, either.
I guess that was the lesson. Not that bravely embracing love like Heloise (and I) did would only lead to humiliation, ruin, and heartbreak. But that, at the end of the day, you could always be proud of making the lovers’ choice, rather than the poets’ choice, even if you lost; and when you lost, you’d still have poetry in you, and you’d still have love in you, whereas Marianne now only has poetry. That in 2020, bleak as it is, I don’t have to get married off to some awful rich guy I’ve never met and keep turning to the one page of the Orpheus myth where a cheap copy of the only few weeks of authentic happiness in my entire life lays fading. Sure, I’m a caricature of an emotionally volatile but reasonably pretty blonde in somebody’s screenplay now, but I’m also still me, here, in my room, dancing and crying and laughing along to “Hungry Eyes.” I’m still on fire. And no matter how anyone sees me, I know the truth. I’ll still be on fire.
Kaye Nash is a writer and a teacher from Vancouver Island. She began her writing career while living and teaching in the outskirts of Taipei, but she now lives with her family in Canada once again. She is a regular contributor at Headline Poetry and Press, but her work has appeared in various other publications as well. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @KStapletonNash. Her pronouns are she/her/hers.
Banner: Digital Manipulation of a Still from Portrait of a Lady on Fire by Robert Frede Kenter