Updated: Aug 8
Jetlagged musings on two in-flight movies: Portrait of a Lady on Fire & Charlotte
If you choose your path in life, life finds a way to introduce you to yourself and, if you’re lucky enough, to the world.
As it happens, choosing my path in life also means choosing films on transatlantic flights. I watched two on my way back from Ithaca NY to Jerusalem. The first was Céline Sciamma’s 2019 Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu); the second, Charlotte by Éric Warin and Tahir Rana, was released two years later. The former is fictional, and the best film I’ve seen in years, featuring an impeccable screenplay and wonderful acting; the latter is based on a true story, a well-crafted animated biography of the remarkable German painter Charlotte Salomon. If you haven’t watched them, please feel free to stop reading this jetlagged piece, and start streaming. I bet it’s even better on a bigger screen!
Both films feature women dedicated to their art, who paint their pain and passion amidst seclusion, geographical or social, and find love. I didn’t plan this coincidence, but in retrospect it makes sense. I just left Ithaca after forty-four days of quasi-solitude, and though I was mostly alone, I didn’t once feel lonely. I guess it was because I hadn’t once spent time with people who didn’t want to be with me, only with those who did, myself included. Both films show how difficult and redemptive this can be.
Marianne studies Héloïse, but does she know her?
My path to Portrait was nearly blocked by premature exasperation. My eyes long wandered over the tiny in-flight screen, browsing through New Releases, New Additions, Independent Films, and what have you, to no avail, until they landed, just before takeoff, on an intriguing title while cruising the International section.
It felt personal, early on, when Marianne, a painter heading to an island on a wobbly boat, jumped into the sea to save her wooden box of canvases. We soon discover they are blank, awaiting a portrait of Héloïse, whose mother, the Countess, commissioned the work, and determined Héloïse will wed a Milanese nobleman. Héloïse, who recently returned from a convent after the suicide of her older sister, refuses to pose for portraits, so the Countess instructs Marianne to accompany her daughter on daily walks so she can secretly paint her from memory.
Marianne observes Héloïse, paying attention to her looks, her gestures, then covertly paints her impressions. She studies her, but does she know her? At times, the observation feels predatory, to us, and perhaps to Marianne too. When she finally confesses to Héloïse, and shows her the portrait, Héloïse’s restrained reaction reveals what Marianne had already sensed: her portrait is something quite ordinary, scratching the surface of vapid conventions. Knowing people must be from within, not (just) from without, to adequately portray Héloïse the person, not the object, something else, wildly unusual, must transpire. And it does, as Marianne gets to truly know, and love, Héloïse.
Why did Orpheus turn around a moment before reuniting, alive, with his beloved Eurydice?
Their love affair reminds me of another cinematic romance: Luca Guadagnino's 2017 Call Me by Your Name, to which Sapienism devoted a quadruple symposium. It’s interesting to Juxtapose the two films. In both, same-sex romance commences clandestinely, triggered by the visit of an expert at the parent’s request. The differences too are telling. Call Me focuses on the art and science of archelogy; in Portrait, it’s painting. In Call Me, the father understands, even encourages, the liaison; in Portrait, the mother sternly sides with oppressive social norms. In Call Me, the setting is a hearty, a sunbathing villa in lush northern Italy; in Portrait, it’s a vacuous mansion on a cold island in Brittany.
But mainly, I’m thinking of the question that haunted me at the conclusion of Call Me: Why leave your love? How can such a magnificent bond end up being just another “summer of love”? Summer is present in Portrait too – not in its weather, which storms the island shores, but in its rare musical moment: Antonio Vivaldi’s Summer, and its own stormy progression from Adagio to Presto.
And so does the fiery love of Marianne and Héloïse. But before the storm, the two join Sophie, the housemaid, in myth-busting Ovid’s “Orpheus and Eurydice.” The question they ask is plain but piercing: Why did Orpheus turn around a moment before reuniting, alive, with his beloved Eurydice? He already persuaded Hades to let Eurydice out of the underworld; he just had to be a bit more patient and not look back at her until they exit Death and realize the dream.
I once projected my own peculiar reading of the myth: Orpheus chose Eurydice but doubted her love. Marianne projected too, deepening the choice: “He chooses the memory of her; that’s why he turns. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.” Finally, Héloïse makes her own arresting projection, rendering the choice complete.
With these projections-turn-premonitions, Marianne and Héloïse reveal themselves, and the trajectory of their love: Orpheus’s and Eurydice’s choices will become their own. A myth that appears mid-movie will be realized near the end. Marianne will continue to observe, to paint and instruct. Héloïse will opt to belong to the underworld of accepted norms, become a wife and a mother. Another love lost – to behold, belong, be gone?
'The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly'
Yes, if it were another, lesser love. But Marianne and Héloïse soared higher. And while their courage could hardly release them from social shackles, their fire was fueled by their candor, care, craving and endless curiosity.
A wonderful post-myth sequence sets the affair aflame with a sorority singing a cappella “fugere non possum” around a bonfire. “I wrote the lyrics in Latin,” Sciamma, the screenwriter and director later explained, “which means ‘they come fly.’ It’s an adaptation of a sentence by [Friedrich] Nietzsche, who says basically, ‘The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.’”
If anything human can ever approach the divine quality of the biblical “burning bush,” a constant change, an all-consuming yet enlivening flame, it’s love.
And as Arcade Fire once so beautifully noted, and Marianne and Héloïse realized, when it comes to true love, it’s never over.
Charlotte Salomon went into the underworld that opened beneath her feet – it wasn’t just political; it was personal.
It was over too soon for Charlotte Salomon. The wrong time, the wrong place, the wrong “race.” Had she been the contemporary of Klimt and Schiele, the work of the Jewish artist would have likely, and proudly, joined the Third Reich’s “degenerate art.” But Charlotte was only 15 when Hitler rose to power in early 1933. Ten years later, and she is five months pregnant, Charlotte was deported to Auschwitz and gassed upon arrival.
Der Stürmer [Nazi Tabloid]: German men and women! Take your revenge!!!!!!!!!! Once Jewish blood spurts from the knife, you’ll have by far a better life
In between she created more than 1300 gouaches (opaque watercolors), over half of which she collated into her opus Life? or Theater? A Musical Play (Leben? Oder Theater? Ein Singespiel), merging images, text, and musical cues that dramatize the story of her life.
The 2021 film faithfully follows, and beautifully animates, Charlotte’s voyage over this decade. But I wonder if the film could have been bolder, as Charlotte was, and gone deeper, as she had tried. Charlotte Salomon went into the underworld that opened beneath her feet – and it wasn’t just political; it was primarily personal.
The film lingers on Charlotte’s marital life with Alexander Nagler, another German Jewish refugee, in Villefranche-sur-Mer, near Nice. But in her confession letter, to which we’ll return, Charlotte wrote of Nagler: “He is just the empty vessel I need to pour my crazy ideas into.” He doesn’t appear in her opus.
“May you never forget that I believe in you.”
The film depicts but fails to fully appreciate Charlotte’s affair with the addressee of her confession letter: Alfred Wolfsohn. Charlotte devoted herself and her work to Alfred, twenty-one years her senior. Emerging from a literal burial ground in WWI, Alfred developed unique vocal techniques, becoming both a singing teacher and a psychotherapist, and, in a way, Charlotte’s Orpheus – as she was his. In Life? or Theater? references Alfred’s many theses, including on Orpheus, comprising nearly one-third of the entire text; she painted his face 2,997 times.
Alfred’s doppelgänger [Amadeus Daberlohn] reading Orepheus
Alfred’s doppelgänger [Amadeus Daberlohn]: And I began to study myself, and became aware that there are two sides to everything: day and night, sun and shadow, death and life. With one of those sides, with death, I was now familiar, because, you see, I had risen from the dead. There remained only for me to become familiar with the other side, with life, in order to be this perfect creature whom you see before you. Daberlohn to Charlotte: ‘In my opinion you are destined to create something above average’
Amadeus Daberlohn says to Charlotte: “May you never forget that I believe in you.”
“I became my mother, my grandmother, I learned to travel all their paths and became all of them… I knew I had a mission, and no power on earth could stop me.”
Charlotte remembered. But just as fiercely as she loved Alfred, so did she hate her grandfather, Lüdwig Grünwald. The film shies away from depicting the full scale of abuse she suffered. At one point, Charlotte illustrates her grandfather’s requests to share “a bed with me,” reasoning “I’m in favor of what’s natural,” at other times urging her: “go ahead and kill yourself and put an end to all this babble!’” For Charlotte, he embodied a cruel charade, a “theatre of civilized, cultured-man act.” It is left to us, her readers, to connect the dots between this “puppet” who “had never felt true passion for anything” to the suicides of his two daughters, including Charlotte’s mother, and finally, of his wife.
Charlotte: Why doesn't she come, my Mummy—she promised.
Charlotte found the answer to her agony in art. Like Marianne, Charlotte too understood that art thrives on innermost knowledge: “I will live for them all,” she writes, “I became my mother, my grandmother, I learned to travel all their paths and became all of them… I knew I had a mission, and no power on earth could stop me.” At least not Grünwald. In 2015 we learned how he died. In her 35-page real-time confession letter to Alfred, Charlotte confesses to poisoning her grandfather, and finally declares, “the theatre is dead!”
Salomon drew this portrait of her grandfather, in February 1943, as he died in front of her.
Concluding Life? Or Theatre? Charlotte knew it all amounted to one fundamental choice: “whether to take her own life or undertake something wildly unusual.”