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Home - Articles - The Double Life of Marianne: Exploring The Muse Identity in Cinema

The man who arrives at the doors of artistic creation with none of the madness of the Muses would be convinced that technical ability alone was enough to make an artist… what that man creates by means of reason will pale before the art of inspired beings.

– Plato


24 Frames: Ever since the dawn of Greek mythology, Muses have long been an inseparable part of the creative process of the artists. Serving as sources of never-ending inspiration, they have been portrayed as phantoms maneuvering freely, impacting the psyche of the artist.


In the modern era, muses began to take a more passive role. No longer goddesses of Olympus guiding mankind through arts and crafts, they were viewed as mere beings who should be relished and taken apart piece by piece. This very depiction has had many representations in cinema. From Moulin Rouge to Allen’s 1997 feature Deconstructing Harry, the intense connection between the two has been explored to the point that The Muse Abuse is an actual trope in the media. However, this does not indicate that every filmmaker took the same route while crafting their narrative.


In this article, we examine the juxtaposition of the muse role in two French films with similar tones, yet contrasting dynamics: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) and The Beautiful Troublemaker (1991).



The Beautiful Troublemaker (La Belle Noiseuse)

Directed by Jacques Rivette


A former famous painter called Frenhofer lives with his wife in his countryside residence in France. When a young artist (Nicolas) and his girlfriend (Marianne) visit him, Edouard Frenhofer decides to finish an artwork called ‘La Belle Noiseuse’, a painting of his wife Liz as the model which he gave up a long time ago. This time with the offer of Nicolas, he decides to use Marianne as the model. The collaboration between the two turns into a battle of dominance and poses various questions about Art and life.


As the movie title suggests (words beautiful and Naughty borrowed from the stereotype of the muse in art and literature), Marianne appears as a goddess-like figure being preyed upon and stripped naked (literally and figuratively) by a painter. Coming to terms with her newfound power as an inspiration to a master and uncomfortable in the role of a mere subject, she struggles to take back ownership of herself. Objecting to the muse role being reserved for passive beings who gain meaning and identity when observed through the lens of the artist, Marianne fights for equality in the process of inventing and seeks to serve as an intellectual counterpart to the reticent artist. In fact, it is this rebellion that becomes the centerpiece of the bond Edouard and Marianne form.


As she requests to be viewed as a human being and not just a toy to be poked at, she starts improvising poses and confessing that what Edouard asks of her is “painful”. This declaration echoes Rivette‘s personal agenda as a director. He believes that art is in itself a painful and sacrificial exchange between the muse and the master.


In La Belle Noiseuse, Marianne is a young woman who is chosen as an inspiration not by her own free will but by the agreement between other men, nonetheless, she tries to twist the narrative and rebels against the passivity that is often counted as a requirement for her role.




Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

Directed by Céline Sciamma


Marianne is a young artist who travels to an isolated island in Northern France in the 18th century. She has been commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse, a young woman who is set to marry an Italian nobleman, who has asked to receive this portrait ahead of the marriage. Héloïse, not wanting to take his hand in marriage, has refused to sit for her portrait before. As a last resort, her mother tells Marianne to pose as a daily walking companion and study Héloïse enough to paint by memory. Eventually, Marianne reveals her true purpose to Héloïse, and the women begin to explore their feelings for one another.


More than anything Portrait of a Lady on Fire is Sciamma’s statement about the interlacing nature of art and love. This time around, the process of creation’s usual path isn’t altered by a rebellion but by the harmony found in Marianne and Héloïse’s interactions. Although unwilling to cooperate at first, Héloïse decides to pose for Marianne, thus tearing apart the typical passive identity of the muse. As two women navigating life in a patriarchal society in the 18th century France, they are both oppressed individuals struggling to be taken seriously, Marianne as a painter (Sharing the name with La Belle Noiseuse‘s muse, but this time posing as the master) and Héloïse as an independent woman refusing to be wed to an aristocrat. This mutual oppression turns their brief time together into a playing field for the two to explore their roles as lovers of art. Héloïse and Marianne work as equals in bringing the tableaux to life. In an emotionally charged scene between the two, Héloïse reminds Marianne that she herself is being closely watched and gazed upon by the muse, while every minor detail about her is being analyzed (“When you’re looking at me who do you think I look at?”). It is then that Marianne registers that the painting is as much her work as it is Héloïse’s. In the absence of the stereotypical domination of the master, the balanced power dynamic between the two reverses the designated roles of the characters. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the artist turns into the muse and the muse is in fact equally an artist.



Written by Negar Fard

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