The movie begins with the students sketching portraits of their teacher Marianne. And almost ends when they complete the portrait. Can we deduce that the portrait referred to in the title is that of Marianne?
May be. Or may be not.
It could be that of Heloise's sister... Or Sophie... Or any of the women in the village who sing fugere non possum .
In a movie directed by a woman and that which has almost no male characters at all, the titular portrait could be of any of the female characters... or a collective one.
Sophie is the key link in this muliebral chain. It is Sophie who introduces fire for the first time in the movie.
And from then on, fire remains a constant presence through out the move- as a crackling sound... as embers...as flames...as the heady smoke of tobacco... fire is a pervasive element of the movie- just like Sophie herself.
Marianne makes the first contact with Sophie the night she experiences her menstrual pains. And that is when she comes to know of Sophie's choice - that of abortion. And this choice is what connects Heloise with Sophie.
Heloise is not free to make even seemingly minor choices - like that of going out for a walk- on her own!
And Sophie, the maid from the 18th century France is free to decide for herself on abortion.
Once Marianne and Heloise identify Sophie as fellow woman , their relationship breaks the rules of the maid and the master. They are all women.
Sophie even takes up the role of a leader and guides Marianne and Heloise to the village where they get to meet the rest of the women. The women who sing fugere non possum (they come fly).
The menstrual pain of Marianne, the missed periods of Sophie, the choice of Orpheus, the sense of equality and freedom to choose that Heloise dreams of... All these converge at a point where the portrait ends to be that of any single woman and manifests as that of entire womanhood. To understand this, we need to know when the portrait is completed. Or rather, what all goes into the completion of the portrait.
Tracking the scene sequence from the night Marianne sketches the abortion scene with Heloise and Sophia will lead to the culmination of the portrait.
Immediately after the abortion sketch is made, we see Heloise smiling profusely while posing for the portrait in her green dress.
And in the next scene Heloise and Marianne "fly together" with the help of weed they got from the village women.
And then comes the most beautiful scene, blending all the underlying motifs and images:
Like Orpheus making the poet's choice of saying goodbye to Eurydice.... like Sophie making her choice of killing her unborn child.... like Marianne and Heloise coming to terms with their inevitability of confining their relationship to that of memory.... the flowers that Sophie uses as model dries down and the embroidery - a work of art- that Heloise's sister left unfinished is completed by Sophie.
And in the nest scene, Marianne completes Heloise's portrait.
The movie can be structurally divided into three parts:
One: From the time the students start drawing Marianne's portrait till they complete it. It can be assumed that whatever happens in between goes into Marianne's portrait.
Two: The painting exhibition where Marianne knowingly smiles at the finger slipped between the vulvar pages.
Three: When Marianne sees Heloise for the last time. When Vivaldi's storm, which Marianne once tried to explain to Heloise is experienced by Heloise in a two and half minute single close up shot. The single shot which tries to unravel the entire movie . Which conveys the experience of Love. And of art.
A video review of the movie Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is available here