By Joséphine Conte
The conversation taking place among Marianne, Héloïse and Sophie, who gather around Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is the film’s main “turning point”. At this point, the film starts to have a supernatural tone: ghostly shadows - Héloïse’s gown starts burning during the choir scene. Moreover the relationship between the painter and her model turns into a one in which feelings of eroticism and love are intermingled. During this scene, the three main characters, being the model (Héloïse), the painter (Marianne) and their maid (Sophie) embody three different interpretations of the “metamorphosis” Héloïse/Adèle Haenel is reading. On the one hand, the interpretation the maid gives is naïve. She is all ears and heart, and her attitude indeed reflects her enthusiasm. She holds her hands tight against her chest, her head is steady and stretches over the table towards the book, and the light of the chimney fire makes her eyes bright and shiny. She appears to be mostly concerned with the plot as it is an adventure full of wonder and magic. It indeed deals with characters facing extraordinary gods and goddesses, and it is a love story, sparkling the readers’ and listeners’ imaginations, setting the scene to create an adventure out of their daily life. Such elements indeed seem to stimulate the maid’s imagination and dreams. On the other hand, the most attractive interpretation seems to be given by the other two characters: both of them wonder and question the role of Orpheus in the myth. Why did he turn back? Why did he send his wife to death another time as he knew the consequences of what he was doing? Their debate is anchored on the screen through exchanged glances and speaking-ups: was his gesture affectionate? Was he anticipating her presence back on Earth? Is his memory of her love far stronger than their fully lived love? Or would this memory be a way of sublimating their love since it could be more lively via poetic creation?
These questions remain unanswered throughout the film, but they set the anchor of Céline Sciamma’s artistic research. First, the film is marked by oniric visions that are conveyed through work on light and colours, inspired by Flemish and French painters’ deep frames and blurry textures, or using symbols, such as Frans Haals or Jean-Baptiste Chardin.
Then, it especially consists of echoes of the myth in question. Indeed, like Orpheus who recollected his love for Eurydice thanks to poetry, Céline Sciamma recollects and gathers the pieces of this incomplete love story thanks to the means allowed by cinema, i.e. music, image, and action that are intricate altogether.* In this respect, the feelings of love that unite the two young women are embodied by the regular sights of Adele Haenel’s silhouette walking at night when her painter herself walks by the house. She comes out of the dark - like out of Hell! - and is numbed in a white loose dress and an evanescent light that shuts down as she passes by. Their secret need of each other is therefore transcended this way. These images may replace their desire, which can’t be fully satisfied since it takes place in a context when homosexuality was prohibited. They also replace the transience of the few tender and sensual gestures they can exchange as they hide into the secrecy of their bedroom. Such scenes seem to imply that the thought of the beloved is as enriching as the love within a couple.
In this respect, references to Orpheus and Eurydice are also narrative, as well as structural. Indeed, they set them in the very core of the narrative like a guidelines weft. The plot is built in a series of intricate flash-backs, as the painter reveals the landscape portrait of the model she loved during her painting workshop -- years after this love story took place.
Moreover, the first part of the film makes the audience witness the tightening of the bond between the portrayer and the portrayed thanks to intellectual closeness. They talk and express themselves regarding their interests and works, the arts, such as painting or music - Vivaldi’s Summer played on a spinet. However, such stimulating exchanges and the awakening of their desire are interrupted by the eye of another character or social conventions, and leavin. The model’s soon--to--come wedding lurks closer and closer and appears as another death. We could say, to a certain extent, that her situation is redolent of Eurydice’s situation. Just as Eurydice is about to leave the Underworld, the model leaves her covent in order to be painted and, therefore, to be shown on a canvas to her husband-to-be. She comes across the hope of a likely escape when she meets the painter, but this escape is dead already and made impossible due to the obligation to get married. The character experiences this wedding as if she were about to be locked down again, i.e. like another way back to eternal life in the Underworld.
These echoes and parallels, mingling together, set by the director, become fully meaningful in the second part of the film and its epilogue. The characters’ reunion is painful and symbolic, since they join only through thought and intellect. The model “meets” the artist during a concert in which the Vivaldi piece they have played together is given and she sits there in tears. The painter visits the Salon in the Louvre Museum and discovers a portrait of her former model, now being the mother of a young child posing by her side. She is holding a book on her knee, opened on a page harkening back to when the artist drew a nude portrait of her as they were living a stolen instant of tenderness together. The relationship that brought them together is thus transfigured through visual arts and their domination of time, like the desire that they experimented.
*The movie is indeed very quiet. There are only two soundtracks : Vivaldi’s Summer barely played on a harpsichord by Marianne and the theme « Fugere non possum » sung by the countryside women choir.
Joséphine Conte is a Classical Literature and Documentation Science student at Lille University in Northern France. She enjoys history and arts, which she studied, and is a hungry bookworm which needs to be caught out of her bookshelves by a good cup of coffee or a film to share with some friends.