Review of A Portrait of a Lady on Fire
I will try not to share any spoilers!
This is a rather beautiful love story between two women, set in the 18th Century. While I truly loved the main plot of the growing love between an artist and her subject, it was not the part of the movie that I found the most poignant.
It is, in essence, a story about the different ways women are affected by men; yet no men actually appear in the film. It speaks to the fact that men are rarely present to see the damage they cause, and remain blissfully unaware of the pain they inflict. The film does not state whether or not this is by design or accident- it simply does not show the men at all. One is left to assume they do not care provided they get what they want, and they will never be able to understand the gravity of what they have done due to indifference. Perhaps if they were more present, more involved, they would see the horrors these women face and change their ways? It is, however, a world of male privilege, where the women feel the need to hide their pain.
It also shows the variety of love and connection between women. They, at times literally, make beautiful music together. The connection of women spans across social standing, and women are always there to support you when things go wrong. We all share the same fears of being hurt by men, whether you are a wealthy woman, a servant, a tradeswoman, or a peasant. We have a pact of silence, we women, that both helps and hurts us; but we would not have gotten as far as we have today without it. This is a bond of terrible beauty, and, while not always true, it is true enough to strike a bittersweet chord in me.
I remember a moment with my step-mother that touches on this subject. This woman who had abused me horribly from the moment we met was having a very difficult day. She was crying in bed, which was not like her; she always insisted on perfection (though cruelty, apparently, was perfection to her). I was cleaning her room at the time, and I came up to the bed and asked what was wrong. She explained that she'd had a miscarriage, and sobbed even harder. I was all of 12, I believe, but even then I understood her pain. I crawled up in bed with my abuser and we shared our one and only willing hug. I comforted her while she cried, and then she told me she was ok now, and thanked me. I crawled off the bed, and we went right back to our dysfunctional relationship.
I would love to say that she reciprocated that comfort when I needed HER, but I sadly cannot. Still, that unspoken bond between women existed for a brief moment, despite the fact that we hated each other. I like to think that, if it were not for social opinion, my step mother would have reluctantly helped me...but my pregnancies had become too public. Silence was no longer an option. I'm sure that if Heloise had been found out, she would be obligated to throw her lover or her servant under the bus as well.
Then again, it was the mother forcing Heloise into the marriage. She meant well, I suppose. During that time especially, women had a great deal of trouble trying to function without a man. Women can be just as toxic as men in this way, but it is worse when women do it. This is not because women have a monopoly on love and kindness, but because all women, every single one of us, understand the horrors men inflict us, whether purposefully or accidentally. Her mother knows she will be miserable, but just doesn't care about that as much as public opinion. The bond of women can be a double edged sword.
Still, I have many other stories of women in different socioeconomic standing, both strangers and friends, automatically understanding my pain. Just the other day I proverbially cried on the shoulder of a receptionist, telling her my problems finding a doctor who will treat me, and complaining that the doctor she worked for refused to even see me once. She responded with instant empathy, and tried to advocate to her boss for me. She called me personally the next day with the sad news that her boss was unwilling to budge in his decision. We shared a moment of sad silence together, then hung up after a few thank you's. The silent feminine contract may be strained in these modern times, but it still exists, as does the need for protection against the indifferent cruelty of men who still control our lives.
That begs the question, thou...is it men who are the antagonists of this film, or is it society? I say it is both, but I will leave you to be the judge. Go watch this film of loving female relationships, and bathe in the beauty!