Updated: Nov 22, 2020
By Océane Puche
I would like to share what struck me after watching Céline Sciamma’s movie several times. The more I explored how the director used Orpheus and Eurydices’s myth in her scenario, the more I realized how complex and subtle it was. The myth is, as Josephine and Séverine said, at the center of the movie : the reading scene of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1) and the discussion between Héloïse, Marianne, and the maid is a turning point. It announces not only the love affair between the painter and her model but also its end. Nevertheless, the myth is recalled all over the movie and Céline Sciamma plays with its narration in order to challenge the spectators who could simply identify Marianne and Héloïse as Orpheus and Eurydice.
In my opinion, the first and the final scenes are the two most obvious echoes to the myth.
At the beginning of the movie, Marianne is telling her students the story behind the ‘Portrait of the lady in fire’ which starts on a boat crossing the sea. Marianne is sitting next to a bunch of men who are silent and ignoring her. The journey is painful and she keeps looking back as if she were worried by something. When they finally reach the shore, she asks about her way and the boatman only answers that she has to follow the path. Hence, the first scene of the retrospective narrative reminds Orpheus’s catabasis: the journey on the sea matches with the crossing of the Styx and the silent boatman can be seen as the equivalent to Charon. Moreover, the path that Marianne follows is not pleasant: it’s rocky and dangerous and it reminds us of the description in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
The final scene of the movie is even more explicit (2) : it takes place in the castle, Héloïse’s mother is back and Marianne has finished the portrait. Therefore, t is time for Héloïse to get ready for the wedding with the rich Milanese man to whom she was promised. The painter says goodbye to her lover and heads to the door and the stairs. Then, she leaves Héloïse for her destiny and makes very hard efforts to not turning back. But Héloïse runs after her and asks her to look back. Symbolically, by that gesture, Marianne acts like Orpheus since she will never see again Héloïse after passing through that door.
There are also several other echoes to the myth: we could think for example of the atmosphere in the castle and those long and dark corridors which make us think of the underworld. The task that Héloïse’s mother gives (paint her daughter without her knowledge) is unusual and appears almost impossible. But Marianne manages to do it as Orpheus could, by his art can achieve impossible things such as charming wild animals and soften the heart of the toughest beings. The intriguing choir scene can also recall the underworld: the women who are gathered, at night, around a fireplace and singing a strange melody look like, in that atmosphere, witches (3) or, in a syncretic way, infernal creatures.
Even though those elements are eloquent and recall quite clearly the myth, the way Céline Sciamma deals with it, from a narrative and spatial point of view, introduces confusion in the interpretation. It is striking, above all, that the beginning and the end of the story are told by Marianne.
The boat scene, for example, is not as simple as it seems: Marianne is of course a kind of Orpheus going to the ‘underworld’ however it’s as if the myth which is referred to has no context. The painter has no reason but to get money to cross the sea and come to that land: she hasn’t met Héloïse / Eurydice yet. Therefore, not only she is not yet in love but she also has nobody to bring back to life. It’s as if the journey to the underworld – hence the myth – has begun before the love story itself begins. Moreover, the confusion continues when Marianne follows the path the boatman just indicated to her: she has to climb a cliff and go up which is disturbing because, if Céline Sciamma was really following the path of the myth, Marianne would have to go down. This ascension of Marianne may be understood, in my opinion, as the mark of Céline Sciamma’s free exploration of the myth.
The way the last scene between the two women refers to the myth is also a sign of this freedom. Orpheus’ anabasis is revisited not only because Héloïse/Eurydice asks Marianne/ Orpheus to turn back but also from a spatial point of view. When Héloïse calls Marianne out and asks her to turn around, she is upstairs and Marianne is downstairs but it should be the other way around. In that situation, it’s as if Marianne / Orpheus was standing in the underworld and Héloïse / Eurydice becomes Orpheus itself. Therefore, Céline Sciamma plays one verticality and introduces confusion in the distribution: both women can be Orpheus and Eurydice.
We can find at least an explanation to this intentional confusion: I think Héloïse is playing along the ‘play’ of Orpheus and needs to ask Marianne to turn back because she knows that their love is doomed and can’t happen outside this enchanted parenthesis. The last thing Marianne sees before going back to (her) life is Héloïse wearing a glittering white ghost-like wedding dress but it’s not the first time she sees it. She already had that vision three times in the corridors of the castle. I think we could use this to understand the handling of the myth in the movie. Elements of Orpheus and Eurydice’s story are appearing several times without following the traditional timeline: there are some echoes, some apparitions, such as Héloïse’s ghost in the castle, which nurture the love story between the two characters. The myth comes and goes in the narration of Marianne just as the ghost.
We could go further in the analysis and choose the lectio difficilior by considering that all the things that create the parallel between Marianne and Héloïse and Orpheus and Eurydice are within the tale that Marianne tells her students. Therefore, the painter could have twisted the reality and might have added supernatural elements and references to the myth in order to entertain her audience. So as she is looking back to her past (a very typical Orpheus gesture) and is telling a love story that please her students, she could be indeed an equivalent of the primus poeta-- not because he turned back to her lover and lost her but because she achieves the destiny Héloïse gave her: being a poet and telling the memory of their love.
1 Ovid, Met., X, 53-54. The path is « arduus » :
Carpitur accliuis per muta silentia trames,
arduus, obscurus, caligine densus opaca.
2 It’s more explicit at that moment for someone who watches the movie for the first time because he·she knows at the end of the movie that Céline Sciamma refers to the myth. At the beginning, it’s harder to get the echoes precisely because the scenario doesn’t follow exactly the diegesis of the myth.
3 This reference to the witches is important : it is not only a reference to underworld / diabolical- christian hell creatures but also a hint for spectators. The witches are nowadays, in the feminist ideology, the symbol of women who freed themselves from male domination. Céline Sciamma is aware of that since she wants to offer a new and desexualised way of filming women (called female gaze).
Océane Puche is a cis female teacher of classics and french literature. She lives in North of France, more precisely in Lille. She is finishing her (Phd) dissertation at the University of Lille. It deals with the first french female translation of Ovid’s Epistulae Heroidum by Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier. She is passionate about women writers and artists of XVIIth (and beyond !) and try to promote at her own level their -- sometimes forgotten, sometimes depreciated – work. She discovered, few months ago, spoken Latin and is very excited about the new pedagogy it offers to teachers and latin lovers. She finds peace and comfort in nature and enjoy to grow things in her garden and hikes.