“Portrait Of A Lady On Fire” and “Little Women”: Two Period Movies with Striking Parallels

January 9, 2020 § Leave a comment

Adèle Haenel and Noémi Merlant in “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire”

Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Saoirse Ronan in “Little Women”

This post contains plot spoilers

Although I didn’t set out to see Céline Scíamma and Greta Gerwig’s new films back-to-back, I did last weekend, and was struck by their similarities. Both films are about women who struggle against the strictures of their times, and both feature women who–despite stiff odds–defy convention to become artists.

What’s surprising is that the two movies are set a century apart and in different cultures: “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire” in France in the 1760s and “Little Women” in New England in the 1860s. Though I would have thought a Parisian portrait painter and an aristocratic maiden from 18th-century Brittany would face greater social obstacles than the daughters of a progressive, educated family in 19th-century Concord, Massachusetts, all the female characters grapple with the same problems: how to decide their own futures, including whether or not to marry, and how to earn a living that would enable their freedom.

Explicit in both stories is the role of art. Only because she is a talented artist (and the daughter of a successful painter whose ateliér and school she inherits) does Marianne (Noémi Merlant) in “Portrait” have a profession. Her income allows her to remain unmarried, and thus independent of domestic obligations. In contrast the noblewoman Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), whose engagement portrait Marianne has been hired to paint surreptitiously, has no prospects but marriage: one arranged by her widowed mother, a countess eager to return to her native Milan. The countess, having lost her older daughter to suicide after she refused the same match, is determined to force Héloïse into an aristocratic marriage that will ensure her return to Milan and both their futures. Héloïse, after strong resistance and a brief affair with Marianne, submits to her mother’s wishes.

A century later in New England, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), the second daughter of a progressive, educated family, is determined to become a writer. Her work is soon published, but because Father March (a minister, like many intellectuals of his day, though without a church position) is disinclined to hold a job, her earnings must support her family. For all their modern, egalitarian ideas, the Marches aren’t far removed from the countess in “Portrait”: they place their economic hopes on the marriage prospects of their prettiest daughter Amy, an aspiring painter. Amy obliges by accepting the proposal of Laurie, the neighborhood rich boy/dreamboat (Timothée Chalamet) previously rejected by Jo. This romantic coup is not without a price, however, as Amy must give up her artistic ambitions to become a wife and mother. Meanwhile Jo, who understands all too well that marriage would spell the end of her writing career, embarks on her glorious spinsterhood only to end up marry an admiring professor (dumpy and German in the book; smoldering and French in the movie) in the end. As Greta Gerwig makes clear, this plot twist was forced on Louisa May Alcott by her publisher and readers, for whom a happy ending required marriage. But Alcott herself never married, made a good living off her copyrights and, when asked why she remained single, stated “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”

Both films share indelible images: longing glances across crowded theaters, musical performances, unrequited love, even skirts accidentally set on fire. But the strongest link between “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Little Women” is thematic: the struggle of young women for autonomy and artistic self-expression in societies that demand their conformity through marriage.

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