Female Orpheuses at the Philly Film Festival

by Sophie Lewis @reproutopia |

Some days you sit down in a cinema and just happen to watch two overwhelmingly beautiful movies in a row that are both about love between two women, and both reworking the “Orpheus and Eurydice” myth. What can I say?: shout-out to the curator at the Philadelphia Film Society who scheduled The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão back-to-back with Portrait of a Lady On Fire. Thank you to whoever it was, for that little Easter egg. What follows consists of my preliminary notes on the Wittigian critique of Orphic love, or (since who could resist the opportunity for an alliteration like this): female Orpheuses at the Philly Film Festival.

 Still from Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu.
 Still from A Vida Invisível (Invisible Life)

As you may recall, the “Orpheus” narrative—at least, its most popular rendering—is a tragic one, about how difficult it is to walk in single file, eyes front, when one is in love. The story recounts the lover’s failed attempt to retrieve his beloved from the grasp of Hades (god of the dead) and bring her back to the realm of the living. He gets surprisingly far, on account of his god-given gift for music which, when he plays his lyre, charms the hell-dog Cerberus who is supposed to be guarding the gate. Hades offers Orpheus a seemingly fantastic deal: sure, no problem, take her, there’s the exit, just walk ahead and guide Eurydice’s ghost out of the underworld back up to the surface, without ever once looking back, and she will be restored to life. Keep going, trust that she is right behind you and, whatever you do, don’t turn around to check, or she will be lost forever. Only be patient, and once you are out, you will see her face again. 

Anyway: Orpheus doesn’t make it. He turns around. He sees her for an instant. They look into each other’s eyes. She vanishes. In some particularly offensive versions, a “forgiving” smile plays on her lips even as she plunges into oblivion in front of him, because, after all, the main thing women crave is not to live, but to be wanted, irresistibly wanted, by a big strong hero, to be confirmed for all eternity as his one weakness. Reciprocity, in the lover’s gaze, is ruinous. Romantic love, so the story goes, cannot survive looking one’s love-object dead in the face. At least, that seems to be what heterosexual men imagine. Indeed, since Antiquity, canonical auteurs have created thousands of straight Orpheuses that really soup up, not so much how awful it is for Eurydice that Orpheus essentially killed her, dropped her, when her fate rested in his hands, but how sad it is for Orpheus. Beautifully, beautifully sad. Imagine! O, the sublime ecstasy of regret! Priceless. 

There are innumerable operas and oil paintings about the sorrow of Orpheus, and artists for centuries have fallen in love with this vision of an artistic self who has deprived himself of his beloved, by… loving her too much! There are sonnets by Rilke, novels galore, plays by Jean Anouilh and Tennessee Williams, a Jean Cocteau trilogy, songs, and even graphic fiction. Brazil seems particularly big into it: there’s the famous 1959 film Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro), in which our hero electrocutes Eurydice by accident, then goes looking for her in vain in the Rio de Janeiro Office of Missing Persons; also the 1999 Orfeu, set too in a favela, amid carneval. There are even a great number of Orpheus/Eurydice musicals (for instance: Jasper in Deadland). (See this amusingly pompous LARB overview of versions of the Orpheus myth for some idea of how invested some people are in defending “the core of the story” from feminist tampering.) The loss of Eurydice is technically just one favored plot-point in the longer legendary saga of a hero’s life; however, in practice, few people know of any other Orphic episodes. In that sense, one might even say (despite the fact that Eurydice is two-dimensional and a function of our hero’s love) that Orpheus = Eurydice.

‘Orpheus and Eurydice,’ Kratzenstein-Stub, 1806
‘Orpheus and Eurydice,’ G.F. Watts, 1860s

Invisible Life, the first of the two movies I saw at the Philadelphia Film Society, by the Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz, is a slightly over-long but powerfully anti-heteropatriarchal melodrama set in 1950s Rio de Janeiro, about the cruelly enforced separation of two sisters—the loves of one another’s lives, destined to be together—by their biological and by-marriage “family.” Here, one would naturally think that the “Eurydice” figure is the one named Eurídice: the younger sister, the eponymous Eurídice Gusmão (Carol Duarte). In fact, it’s not so simple. Granted: the elder sister, Guida (Julia Stockler), does, in a sense, serve blindly as a “guide” for her other half, taking initiative in leaving their toxic family. Out she walks, out of the horrible cage that is their father’s home, at the age of sixteen, and gets on a ship to Greece with a sailor she isn’t married to. And the unbearable thing is—on account of the thousands of letters intercepted by her parents and never delivered—it does appear to Eurídice as though she never looked back. Throughout the movie, by means of near-misses in which the sisters almost encounter one another in public and generally dance unwittingly on the edge of being reunited, Aïnouz ensures that one is essentially sitting there in agony, internally yelling at the screen, sister, she did look back. She DID.

But it is arguably also Guida who is the Eurydice in A Vida Invisível. As a fallen woman, ripped from her sibling and life-partner by patriarchal cruelty and moralism, her life in Rio (following her brief stint in Europe) is slum-bound, anonymous, sex-working, never the same again. Bitten by a metaphorical snake (as was Eurydice, fatally, according to the myth) – that is to say, impregnated by her seducer – and cast punishingly into pariah-hood, the bold teenaged protofeminist is arguably less the adventurer and more the lost/dropped beloved in this upside-down rendering of the myth. More than anything, though, the film confounds the logic of a zero-sum role distribution when it comes to love; it rejects the either/or. 

Invisible Life confounds the logic of a zero-sum role distribution when it comes to love.

For Eurídice in Invisible Life is both Orpheus and Eurydice at the same time, too. Despite embodying Orphic musicality with her virtuosic piano-playing, she embodies Eurydicean non-existence in equal measure: unseen, unfree, unrecognized by anyone around her. She stays at home forever, enduring all kinds of erasures there (including routine marital rape): stuck in the deathly erased state of housewifedom, that other kind of underworld. Like her sister, then, this sister becomes simultaneously a woman rendered two-dimensional by imposed exile from life; and an “Orfeu” figure, forever searching for her lost soulmate. Like Orpheus with his beast-taming lyre, Eurídice is preternaturally gifted (she wins a place at a prestigious conservatory, playing Chopin’s Etude Op. 10, No. 9). Only, in her case, the music doesn’t tame the beasts. Her father and husband snarl that she has no need to play anymore, now that she’s proven she can, and she ends up setting fire to her piano as well as her own hands. Meanwhile, the denizen of the social underground, Guida, changes her name, and builds an abundance of queer kinships with fellow sex-workers, afrolatinas, and castaways. It is a brilliant, and yet so simple, feminist-humanist critique of the received format of mythic love-psychology. For there cannot be a female Orpheus in this world. Nor should we, perhaps, wish there to be. 

Guida walks in front of her sister on her wedding day, out of their father’s house.
Eurídice contemplates an eternity in the domestic underworld (on a hilltop) she inhabits.
Guida contemplates an eternity in exile from the realm of the living, as a fallen woman in 1950s Rio de Janeiro.

The second—and far superior—film is Céline Sciamma’s lesbian period drama Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu, which not only edified my soul but, uh, set my dress on fire, if you know what I mean. If you like to experience near-lethally molten beauties having real, high, fun-seeming sex with each other; sex which seems to help them begin to dismantle class divisions and build solidarities between themselves and a third powerful young woman who is employed in the house as a servant, then I recommend this movie. More to the point, in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the strategic, pointed, feminist confusion of Orpheus and Eurydice subject-object-ivities goes even deeper. 

Sciamma’s female Orpheus learns how to make art that inflames rather than placates; collective art; feminist art.

The very opening frame of the film is a wry send-up of female fungibility as love-objects: to wit, a woman is yanked out of a convent in order to replace her sister in being married off to some nobleman, after said sister (the original wife-to-be) kills herself. It’s as though the grande dame, the single parent and de facto patriarch in the house, is being given a second chance by Hades to “succeed” at love, and is squandering it royally by insisting on the identical same course of action (i.e., arranged marriage) for daughter #2. 

Meanwhile, the outsider, the Orphic visitor and soother of ruffled temperaments, is embarking on her rescue mission. At the opening of Sciamma’s movie we see her making her descent (well, in this case, ascent, up a hill), across the River Styx (or, in this case, the ocean, into which she jumps to rescue some blank canvases). Then she mollifies a form of Cerberus and paints a deadening, relatively soulless kind of picture of the Feminine Art-Object, by subterfuge. And she gets called out on it. Because the sitter, who was not a sitter in that first attempt, in that her image was being captured non-consensually, doesn’t just sit: she excoriates the result. Having inspired the destruction of her likeness, she then sits, only on condition that she play an integral part in the process. 

Unexpectedly, Sciamma’s female Orpheus learns how to make art that inflames rather than placates; collective art; feminist art; art that emerges from the unfolding dialectic of a reciprocal gaze, and which, rather than purporting to represent its human subject for the purposes of selling her on the marriage market, respects the darkness in which she wraps herself, and gestures – by way of the flames licking at the corner of her skirts – at everything about her that might set the world alight (or burn it down).

The painting “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” painted in the movie Portrait of a Lady on Fire
A scene featuring Héloïse, this time surrounded not by clouds but by waves.
The painter, Marianne.

In the process, she (Marianne) undoes herself, or rather, she allows her Eurydice (Héloïse) to undo her. And if there is a ‘lesson’ about art in Sciamma’s movie, it is that the flaming paintings generated by the love affair – not only the eponymous one, but the one painted later on, collectively, of the abortion – only become possible when the painter shows her own face to the sitter(s). The paintee seduces as well as intellectually persuades the painter into dropping her defenses, showing her that she, too, is desired and desirable, that she, too, has facial tics and tell-tale outward signs of inner emotion that are legible to the interested observer… and, most pressingly of all, that she, too, despite having relative independence by virtue of having a professional métier, is a woman in a patriarchal society who should extend solidarity to those other women consigned to marital imprisonment, rather than judging them for their “cowardice.” This process of consciousness-raising and ego-deconstruction makes, shall we say, for a bumpy ride. “I didn’t know you were an art critic,” snaps our metamorphosizing Orpheus, pissed off that her subject is right about the uninspiring flatness of her original portrait.  “I didn’t know you were a painter,” snaps back Héloïse.

I’ve been talking here, obviously, about two specifically feminist 2019 re-tellings of “Orpheus and Eurydice.” And now might be a good time to acknowledge that, in a general sense, feminist re-tellings of the myth are anything but new. For over a hundred years, people have noticed that the tale encrypts a depressingly chauvinist, mistrustful account of love (for example: can’t Eurydice walk out of hell by herself?!). But what the genre of the “feminist Orpheus” has, very laudably, tended to do is, rather than making both parties female, only to “give voice” to Eurydice. For instance, in her poem “Eurydice” (from Poems 1912-1944), H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) was one of the first to explore the idea that Eurydice did not want to be rescued from Hades at all. In 1987, Margaret Atwood published a very similar poem (and in the meantime, Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, Elaine Feinstein and Sandra Gilbert had all published feminist receptions of the myth, including responses to Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy). The playwright Sarah Ruhl revived the trend in 2003 with Eurydice: a play that centers the woman’s complex feelings about her father on the one hand, Orpheus on the other, and the different worlds they represent. Meanwhile, in Anaïs Mitchell’s workerist musical version, the underworld was “Hadestown,” a grim capitalist factory town, to which (one day, while a useless Orpheus is away writing music) Eurydice voluntarily consigns herself in order to survive; building the very wall that separates her from the man she loves. A 2013 edited collectionxo Orpheus, includes a version of the story by Heidi Julavits – “Dark Resort” – in which the “husband” is averse to diving into the water to rescue the drowning “wife,” i.e., decidedly non-heroic.

It is was Wittig who first explicitly introduced the notion that Eurydice wants Orpheus to turn around.

But prior to the two movies I saw at the Philly Film Festival, it was only Monique Wittig, as far as I know, who lesbianized Orpheus. Initially, Wittig’s strategy had been different: in her 1969 novel Les Guérillères, she makes Orpheus the name of the snake who leads to Eve’s expulsion from the garden of Eden. (Wittig also predicts that her female warriors, her amazon guérillères, will soon “crush the serpent under [their] heel.”) But then, a few years later, in her 1973 novel Le Corps Lesbien (The Lesbian Body), Wittig turned Orpheus and Eurydice into lesbian lovers.

Here is a portion of the speech spoken by Wittig’s Eurydice:


And here is another:


As the critic Namascar Shaktini observed in the journal Signs in 1982: “Wittig’s translation of the myth into lesbian terms not only radically improves the outcome of the story for Eurydice – who, we may recall from the heterosexual version, dies on the day she is married – but also changes the meaning.” This, for me, is what Aïnouz and Sciamma did, as well. I want to call their films Wittigian because, while I could be wrong, I think it is was Wittig who, in The Lesbian Body, first explicitly introduced the notion that Eurydice wants Orpheus to turn around (“you do not heed m/y sobs,” you drag me…). In Sarah Ruhl’s rendering of this perverse desire, Eurydice actively calls out to Orpheus: “Turn around!”

Now why would she do that? Why would Eurydice, who is supposed to simply be silent and grateful for being sought out for revivification, cry out “Turn around”? This is the question explored by Sciamma’s nineteenth-century women characters in Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu around the kitchen table. The answer is obvious to Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the young gentlewoman who feels imprisoned by patriarchy, whose sister has already thrown herself (Eurydice-like?) off the nearby cliffs to her death rather than be married. Héloïse begins her relationship with Marianne (Noémie Merlant) – her appointed “companion” – by running towards the cliff-edge, feinting a copycat suicide. She is, we realize, actively flirting with annihilation-by-artist, constantly signalling her desire (even if it is not the desire that wins out, in the end) to have her lover be the one to deal her (or doula) her death.

Marianne cannot understand this at all. And, as viewers, initially identified with Marianne, we spend the first section of the movie following behind  Héloïse’s cloaked back, desperate for a glimpse of her face, and mentally hissing “turn around!” even though we know that the portrait, if and when it can be painted, will be shipped off to some strange nobleman in Milan and used to imprison, in an eternity of wifehood, its ferociously recalcitrant subject.

“Turn around!” (“retourne-toi!”) are, in fact, the final words of the primary, flashback, narrative portion of Sciamma’s Portrait. This moment is the first and only instance in which characters in the movie use the intimate “tu” form of address with one another, as opposed to the more formal “vous,” and it literally took my breath away (I gasped.) The words are cried out by a spectral Héloïse, all in bridal white, hovering on the stairwell behind her lover as the latter attempts to make a breakneck, brokenhearted exit. And they do, in fact, make Marianne whip around and confront, perhaps, her role in consigning Héloïse to the institution of marriage, i.e. to spiritual death. 

Héloïse appears to Marianne, floating, in bridal white.

In this way, Sciamma goes further than most previous feminist critics of the Orpheus myth, further, even, than Wittig. Not content to simply animate the consciousness of the object of patriarchal chattel exchange between Orpheus and Hades, she locates, behind the self-affirming (but also self-annihilating) “retourne-toi” of Eurydice, unwilling evacuee from hell, an earlier violence: that of the “poet” who got her to turn her face towards his gaze in the first place. The deeply utopian freight here is nothing less than the horizon of subject/object transcendence: the gaze, in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is non-divisible between see-er and seen, it is more than the sum of its parts, it is reciprocated.

The deeply utopian freight here is nothing less than the horizon of subject/object transcendence.

If Marianne—who in reality is no “lady’s companion” but a hired painter sent for by the mother, that is to say, a relatively unconfined 19th-century professional woman—hallucinates this moment on the threshold of the cloistered domestic underworld, it is a testament to how much she has learned from her lover about love, and solidarity. Earlier in the film, during the kitchen-table conversation about Orpheus and Eurydice, she was the only one who identified squarely with Orpheus, whose decision to turn around and see Eurydice one last time, even at the cost of ever getting to spend time with her again was, in her view, understandable: the legitimate decision of “a poet, rather than a lover.” 


Meanwhile, the maid in the movie, Sophie, who also seems to be the smartest of the four women (the four being Sophie, her young mistress Héloïse, Marianne the secret portraitist, and Héloïse’s lady mother), understands neither why Orpheus might turn around on purpose, nor why Eurydice, even if domestic bourgeois femininity is suffocating, might want him to. Sophie is philosophically resistant to despair; and when her herbal abortifacient methods (amplified by suspending herself from the rafters) do not work, she has a splendid abortion on a local midwife’s family’s bed, surrounded by supportive women comrades, lying next to a curious baby whose fat little fingers are touching her face. That, by the way, along with the later scene in which Héloïse re-stages the abortion with Sophie at home by the fire, as a grand subject for her lover Marianne to paint, is hands down the best treatment of abortion I’ve ever seen on-screen. The love I bear for this movie, with its utopian commitment to class abolition, its queer solidarities and anti-familial pleasures, including hallucinogen-enhanced gay sex, is hard to overstate.

Héloïse and Marianne.

I have to assume it was no coincidence, but a conscious decision on someone at Filmadelphia’s part (thank you, whoever you are!) to pair these two new releases.  If it was a coincidence, it was a magical one. And, either way, it brought me immense joy and mental nourishment.

I really mean “joy,” even though neither of the Female Orpheus movies at the festival had “happy endings.” Resolutely committed to the femme arts of care and survival, and even thriving, pending revolution, A Vida Invisível and Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu have much to teach us about staring heartbreak right in the face; about being true to a living, evolving person; about response-ability. They do not reject “Orpheus,” but they reject the received Orpheus myth’s premise that “hell” means the same thing for everyone in a fundamentally stratified society. Torquing “Orpheus,” they each, in their own way, take seriously their chosen era’s (1950s Brazil, 19th-century France) non-negotiable limits on middle-class women’s choices and their flourishing. Indeed, they portray universes that are a hair’s breadth from hopelessness. Taking female suicidality-as-rationality seriously, they both question whose agency (Orpheus’s or Eurydice’s, or both, OR NEITHER) was actually decisive in the “failure” of the Ancient Greek rescue-mission, asking, relatedly, which realm—Earth or the nothingness beyond the River Styx—is truthfully the more “invisible” one to live in, for middle-class women in this world. But, despite and perhaps because all of this, they evoke the nuclear-grade, legendary quality that can inhere in the femme4femme love story at least as readily as it can in any heterosexual plot.

Yay! Marriage.

Sophie Lewis is the author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family. Sophie is a writer, theorist and occasional translator living in Philadelphia. She is one of the editors at Blind Field. You can support her writing at patreon.com/reproutopia.



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