Turn Around!

The recent movie Portrait of a Lady on Fire helpfully offers a self analysis through the characters’ reading of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The movie follows the brief romance between a noble lady, Héloïse, and the female painter, Marianne, who paints her wedding portrait but also shares her love of literature and music. In the myth, Orpheus goes to the underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice even though she is dead. Hades allows this, on the condition that they walk straight out without him turning around once to look at Eurydice. Of course, Orpheus looks back just as the couple reached the exit. Héloïse says Orpheus chooses the memory of his wife, while Marianne suggests that Eurydice says, “look back”. This myth perfectly embodies the second qualifier of queer time presented by Halberstam and the implications of it in the movie A Portrait of a Lady on Fire echo the ending of the novel Written on the Body in really intense ways. 

Halberstam states that “queer uses of time and space develop… in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction. They also develop according to other logics of location, movement, and identifications” (1). In both the novel and the movie it makes more sense to think about the characters’ relationships based on the second qualifier since they both return to normative chronology in the end. (That is not to say there is no opposition to be found in these works, I’ll just be lightly jumping over it.) The narrator leaves Louise with her husband and Marianne leaves Héloïse to prepare for her wedding. However, the leaving isn’t the same. Halberstam explores the idea of a “constantly diminishing future” and the pressure and urgency this creates, which “expands the potential of the moment” (2). In Written on the Body, the narrator leaves Louise because of a fear of the diminishing life she has, and, therefore, they have, in the hope that leaving gives Louise longevity in her husband’s care (104-105). In A Portrait of a Lady on Fire both Marianne and Héloïse knew that their relationship would end and they would return to their respective normalities. But they lived together, for a moment, within their expanding potential even with the temporal boundary of Héloïse’s wedding day. 

Both stories present a queer reality that is ultimately overtaken by normative chronology. Moreover, this return is a choice made by the characters themselves. Orpheus lived for a moment in a queer reality, that he asked Hades for, where he could bring his wife back to life. Either he chose the memory of her and looked, or Eurydice chose the memory of him and told him to turn around. In both scenarios, Orpheus lives with the beautiful memories he has of his wife and the memories are given new life by the possibility of her continuing to live. When Marianne leaves, Héloïse calls out to her, “turn around!”. She doesn’t ask her to stay. Héloïse chooses to call out, but Marianne chooses to look. They both choose the memory of existence outside of the normative reality they now reside in. The narrator of Written on the Body leaves Louise so that she might live longer. They wrote a goodbye letter and were promised updates on Louise (141). They chose the memory without giving Louise a say. They turned around, but Louise never asked them to. Without both parties choosing the memory there is no closure to their pocket of queer time. Héloïse, Marianne, and the narrator keep beautiful memories, but Louise is just simply left. Because the narrator did not include Louise, they cannot rely on her promise to write, only Elgin’s. This leaves the narrator wondering and worrying rather than sure in Louise’s promise. This anxiety is what drives them to be discontented with the memory of Louise and struggle to find her. In comparison, Marianne and Héloïse never see each other again and are happy to revel in their memories.

2 thoughts on “Turn Around!”

  1. https://open.spotify.com/album/1J1yxODbNlqKbwRqJxYJUP?si=dLF1eXLYTcmzr2VrCxeFqg
    Unfortunately, I have not seen the film you reference in this discussion, but I am very interested in both your analysis and the film’s analysis of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. I would like to throw in another work related to that myth: the musical Hadestown. The recording is linked above. Anaïs Mitchell, the author of this work, combined the traditional structure of Greek mythology and theater with an analysis of industrialism and capitalism. Hades, the king of the Underworld, rules over a foundry full of assembly lines, electricity, and spirit-dead workers. The workers endlessly build a wall, keeping their heads low yet calling the experience freedom. In contrast, “Up Top” the people are poets, bohemians, artists, or as Hades calls them “unemployed.” In spring the wine flows and they are happy, but when Persephone leaves times are hard. Eurydice buys into the myth that Hadestown is where you get rich, and leaves Orpheus. She buys into a normative timeline of what is “acceptable” or “meaningful” work. In Mitchell’s retelling, Hadestown can exist as an exaggerated heterosexist, normative timeline where creativity or deviation is squashed whereas the world above the people seeking queer timelines face a fight for survival but are free to express themselves. In this analysis, the idea of Orpheus and Eurydice having a queer pocket of time and space expands to the world they live in and demonstrates an exaggerated analysis of the harm of normative structures.

  2. I think your idea could be applied to Mala and Boyie. Mala lives in the past and hopes for Boyie to come back to her. She is grasping to live in the queer reality. On the other hand, Boyie accepted normative time but he knew it wasn’t what he wanted either. Like the narrator of Written on the Body, Boyie originally left leaving no closure for either party, leaving both in discontent. Boyie later rejects the normative path he originally chose through slumber.

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