Picture these: 6 mysterious paintings on film

Enigmatic canvasses loom over these six classic films, from Vertigo to The Souvenir.

19 February 2020

By Stephen Puddicombe

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

A complex film in so many ways, the initial plot of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of Lady on Fire is actually very simple: one woman attempting to paint the other.

Commissioned to paint the reluctant soon-to-be-wed Heloise (Adèle Haenel), young artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) soon finds herself falling in love with her subject. Upon seeing the completed painting, however, Heloise is frustrated that Marianne has failed to capture her spirit and true personality. But romance blossoms between the two when Heloise agrees to pose for a redraft, with the intimacy that comes with so closely studying another’s features sparking the flames of mutual desire.

The power of painting as a means of preserving the image of a loved one is especially pronounced in the film’s late 18th-century setting. Yet even in films set in a more modern era, when people can be photographically and/or digitally captured in their likeness, hand-crafted portraits continue to exert a unique fascination and aura, as these six examples demonstrate.

Laura (1944)

Director: Otto Preminger

Laura (1944)

The ghost of Gene Tierney’s apparently murdered Laura Hunt haunts Otto Preminger’s classic 1944 noir, with her overpowering presence keenly felt through the huge portrait on display in her apartment. That image of idealised beauty has a particularly powerful impression on the hardboiled detective (Dana Andrews) assigned to solve the case, who, as another character wryly remarks, appears to have fallen “in love with a corpse”.

The dreamy image leaves a lasting impression, and it’s no coincidence that another tragically killed girl whose picture appears at the end of every episode of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks was also named Laura.

The Woman in the Window (1944)

Director: Fritz Lang

The Woman in the Window (1944)

Film noir is populated by susceptible men who fall into a spiral of crime and sleaze upon meeting an alluring femme fatale. In the case of Richard Wanley, Edward G. Robinson’s comfortably married middle-aged college professor, it’s the portrait of a woman seen outside a shop window display that sets off his destructive desire.

This ‘woman in the window’ becomes flesh and blood when an eerie second face appears suddenly adjacent to the portrait, which turns out to be the reflection of the woman who modelled for the painting (Joan Bennett). She’s crept up from nowhere behind Richard, a dream girl become reality.

Vertigo (1958)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Vertigo (1958)

In a film that, like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is so much about the act of looking, it’s apt that a portrait plays such a significant role. Following a woman (Kim Novak) he has been hired to investigate into San Francisco’s Legion of Honor gallery, detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) is bewildered to witness her staring hypnotically at a 19th-century portrait that bears an uncanny resemblance to her.

Her apparent fixation leads Scottie to the belief that she is possessed by Carlotta Valdes, the woman in the painting. In truth, it is Scottie who is falling under a spell.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

An enormous blow-up of Nicolas Poussin’s 17th-century painting Midas and Bacchus looms over every scene in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s melodrama, adorning an entire wall inside the apartment where the whole film is set. It depicts the scene in Greek mythology in which King Midas thanks the god Bacchus for ridding him of his power to turn everything he touches into gold.

The exact significance of this painting to the events of the film remains oblique. A comment on the characters’ Dionysian decadence, perhaps, or a warning against the folly of ill-judged longings. But it functions as an imposing, suggestive backdrop in this stressfully claustrophobic film.

Barton Fink (1991)

Director: Joel Coen

Barton Fink (1991)

One of several simple but unsettlingly uncanny props that populate the dingy hotel that the eponymous Hollywood screenwriter frequents in Barton Fink is a painting of a sunbathing young woman gazing out into the sea. It’s an image that the struggling wordsmith stares at during his many hours stuck in the limbo of writer’s block.

The Coens’ Palme d’Or winner blurs the boundaries between reality and artistic fantasy. It ends with one final, especially disorientating scene set on a beach. Fink meets a woman dressed in the same way and replicating the exact same pose from the painting. “Are you in pictures?” he asks her, pun seemingly unintended.

The Souvenir (1775) by Jean-Honore Fragonard

The Souvenir (2019)

Director: Joanna Hogg

Only glimpsed briefly when the two main characters (lovers Julie and Anthony, played by Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke) visit an art gallery, Jean Honoré Fragonard’s portrait of a young woman engraving her beau’s initials into a tree (inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1761 sentimental novel Julie) is nevertheless important enough to give Joanna Hogg’s film its title.

Each character interprets it differently. Anthony sees in the subject’s indeterminable expression feelings of romantic love and determination, whereas Julie thinks she merely looks sad. And it’s these differences in perception that will go on to shape, and ultimately derail, their doomed romance.

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