Readers Write In #231: Memory is stronger than physical presence in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Posted on July 27, 2020

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(by Shri Swaminathan)

It’s quite obvious now, more than ever that the certainty of people around us, the need for physical connection, all our extroversive activities, feel more significant than ever. As to why, well they’re all a memory of the past. Back in the days of accessibility, hanging out with a bunch of people was…normal. Yet, the memory of them feels special, and there’s a certain enhancement to them that the mind creates. Does our mind make things of the past more powerful over time? Perhaps, it’s evident in how Portrait of a Lady on Fire paints a beautiful vindication of the power of memory, and how things are augmented in memoriam than in present reality.

Reiterating the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, eternal lovers whose flame is extinguished early when Eurydice dies, and Orpheus pleads to Hades of the underworld to take her back with him, under one condition: she must follow his footsteps, and Orpheus can never look back, or he might lose her forever. In residual doubt that Eurydice might not actually follow him, he looks back, and loses her forever, only to remember her in memory. Yet, their story lives on to great significance.

Marianne now refers to this as the poet’s choice — to remember, not regret. Héloïse suggests that it couldn’t have been his impulse, but she would’ve asked him to turn back.

And throughout the film, Marianne has visions of Héloïse in her wedding dress — which is later revealed to be the last visual memory of her that Marianne has.

Was this a vision? An act beyond reality? Well, it is comprehensible beyond reality, as it’s actually Marianne’s memory– the whole narrative is Marianne recounting the story of their love to her students. It’s her last memory of Héloïse, that haunts her whilst she’s narrating the story, and it remains the only act of visual exposition in the film. This last memory exists only cause Héloïse asks her to turn back, just like Eurydice does. She’s aware that she will lose her forever, yet that last memory will exist in their eternity.

Towards the end, only their memory lives on. Marianne sees Héloïse as a portrait, perhaps the other thing closest to her heart other than Héloïse herself. It’s just Héloïse staring with page 28 opened - the exact same sheet that Marianne sketched something against the convention of art for her, a self-portrait of her in the present moment. Yet, Marianne feels a certain connection with the painting that transcends physicality. She epiphanies that Héloïse remembers her through the open page, and it becomes a flame that is ignited by memory.

A mirror of this connection is seen when Héloïse, hears Presto from Summer, by Vivaldi, played by the orchestration where Marianne herself is present unbeknownst to Héloïse, and the song brings back her memories of Marianne, as she played the same piece for her, a moment that sparked the beginning their connection — beautifully revealed through Heloïse’s smile, something that Marianne longed to capture for her portrait, through her own effort, and it now has an emotional contribution to it — augmenting it’s inner beauty that is accessible beyond the external admiration of art. She never sees Marianne, yet she breaks down to an immeasurable extent upon only hearing the piece, reminiscing that moment of connection only through memory.

Till the end of their story as we know it — the end of the film, they only live in each other’s’memories, and this stratifies their bond beyond reality. They co-exist in each other’s’ minds, and their live will continue till the end of eternity — as to them, eternity is not one of the world, but their own existence, as they faced each other; not the world.

Would their romance be of such significance if Portrait’s past was its present? Their alienation over time made their bond stronger, as memory, the way we comprehend it, can be what we desire. The two lovers desired each other and hence, chose to live in memoriam, arousing a fire so inexplicable on the physical portrait of love as we experience it.