Marianne is an artist who’s been commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloise. Héloise has recently left a cloister, so that she can be engaged to a Milanese nobleman. He was supposed to marry her sister, who decided that killing herself was a better prospect. So, he’ll take Héloise as a booby prize, but only on condition that he gets a picture that shows he’s not getting shoddy goods.
Welcome to 1770 France. The revolution that will bring some limited freedoms is still a couple of decades away, and women are treated as chattel. Even Marianne is not allowed to draw male nudes or study anatomy, just in case she gets as good as her male contemporaries.
But some resistance is stirring already. Héloise refuses to sit for a portrait, and already one (male) artist has given up trying to paint her. Marianne is therefore employed as a lady’s companion, and has to catch Héloise’s likeness by sideglances during their daytime walks.
Héloise is not stupid, and soon the sideglances are returned, and Marianne has to admit what she’s up to. Somewhat surprizingly, Héloise agrees to sit for a proper portrait. Her mother, who is arranging the coming nuptials, leaves for 5 days, after which the portrait should be finished and they can get on with the wedding.
Slowly, gradually, the two women become emotionally closer. As Marianne looks at her subject, with a distinctly non-male gaze, Héloise stares right back at her. They exchange increasingly intimate conversations, showing that each has learned the meaning of the other’s slightest gesture, from biting their lips to brushing their arm.
As the Matriarch is away, the household becomes more egalitarian, and they accept maid Sophie almost as an equal (though I bet I know who does all the cleaning off-screen). They play snap together, and Marianne and Héloise help Sophie deal with her unwanted pregnancy, with Marianne sketching the abortion, by a female villager, whose children cling on to Sophie during the operation.
This is why the Bechdel test is so important. Its not just that women are scandalously underrepresented in film. It is that when they do turn up, their importance is usually measured in terms of their usefulness to the (usually) male hero. To see women interacting with each other is a rarity that is to be savoured.
In a particularly poignant scene, the women discuss the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. We know the story, right? Eurydice dies prematurely, so Orpheus visits the Underworld and begs Satan to let her live. Satan is moved by Orpheus’s plea and agrees on one condition – Orpheus must not look back. Just as they are escaping hell, Orpheus glances back to check that Eurydice is still there, and she vanishes in the proverbial puff of smoke.
For Sophie, the message is simple. Orpheus knew the rules and he defied them. Feckless men are to blame. Yet the artist Marianne has a more romantic interpretation. Following the rules and freeing Eurydice may have been the lover’s solution, but a poet would need one last gaze at his love. There may well be a callback to this poet’s view as the film goes on.
Because of course, it can’t last. Héloise’s mother must return, and Héloise must be sold off. As their relationship becomes closer, Marianne clearly wants Héloise to defy societal expectations, but this is obviously never going to happen. As a result, Marianne starts to have haunting visions of Héloise in a wedding dress.
There are many ways in which this film might have not worked. It is a period drama, which could have easily descended to lots of lingering scenes of posh women in frocks. It has incredibly lengthy longueurs which could have bored us if the acting was not quite so compelling (special credits to Adele Haenel – that’s 2 days running I’ve seen her in 2 quite different films, and she was brilliant in both of them).
And, as is fitting for a film about painting, it looks fantastic. Its set on an island off the Brittany coast, and some of the landscapes are quite spectacular. The scenes inside the big manor are so beautifully lit that it almost makes you want to justify the nobility. Almost.
Both Margaux River and Ana Barrena Lertxundi recommended the film to me, and I was petrified that I wouldn’t think it was all that, and have to justify myself. No danger – when have Margaux and Ana ever been wrong?