Who Loves the Creative Woman?

One of my favorite animated features, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, opens with its hero, Victor, sketching a butterfly and then setting it free from the elegant glass dome that imprisons it. We see his pen sweeping over the paper, bringing the work of art into the world with soulful concentration. Later he watches as his subject takes wing and disappears, and he’s left with the memory he created. This establishes his character from the get-go, a gentle, awkward, introspective artist. A couple of scenes later, when he goes with his parents to meet his future in-laws, we learn that in matters artistic, Victor is twice blessed: he also plays the piano, and brilliantly too.

It’s here that we meet his love interest, Victoria, whose name suggests she is (or should be) his female counterpart. In some respects, she is. Like him, she’s shy and awkward. Like him, she doesn’t feel valued by those who should be closest to her. She also shares at least some degree of his soulfulness, as she’s drawn to the beauty of the music he’s playing. What she does not share, alas, is his creative ability. She doesn’t play the piano, her mother having deemed music “too passionate” for a young lady. It’s a safe bet she doesn’t sketch butterflies, either; the most “creative” thing we see her do is mend a blanket, which is framed as more like 19th century housework than art. Here, the ability to make art is a guy thing, something Victoria will love her husband for but never do herself.

This movie offers one of the more palatable (for me, anyway) examples of the Creative Man/Commonplace Woman trope, seen everywhere from Big Fish to Phantom Thread to Coco, in which making art is coded as male, particularly when it’s said to rise to the level of genius. Some of the women in this trope, like Victoria and the wife in Big Fish who is so colorless and underwritten that her name escapes me, find a measure of happiness with their artists. Others, like the “Muse” in Phantom Thread, suffer for loving the art-obsessed genius. But in all cases, we see the women drawn to the creative greatness of their men while aspiring to nothing similar in themselves. And for the most part, their men like them just as they are, simple and ordinary.

So what happens to the creative woman? A few of her are sprinkled here and there among the many men whose burning desire to create will not be squelched. The titular Corpse Bride does play the piano, and even duets with Victor in a delightful scene. But even though she’s drawn so that we like and sympathize with her, she can’t emerge the winner in the love triangle. For obvious reasons, the girl with the spark of creativity must give way to her ordinary rival.

Creative women, when they do appear in film and television, don’t tend to win romantic happily-ever-afters. The story of Emily Dickinson is already known; as told in A Quiet Passion, she secludes herself, suffering from an illness that grows steadily worse over the course of the film. The titular folk artist of Maudie does have a husband, but their relationship is problematic; he’s more hostile toward her art than supportive of it. In Crimson Peak, for aspiring novelist Edith, romance turns out to be a trap from which she barely escapes with her life. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, in a show of appeasement to editors and readers of its day, marries its creative spirit Jo March to an older man who doesn’t think much of her writing, and in the 2019 film adaptation, “Under the Umbrella” becomes Under the Question Mark, leading us to assume that like Alcott herself, Jo will go it alone. Meanwhile, her sister Amy, an ambitious painter, gets to marry the man she loves only after she has renounced her art.

For women on screen, are love and art incompatible? The 1980s miniseries Anne of Green Gables offers a counter-example, to a degree, but even there, the boy isn’t specifically won by the girl’s creativity. The only example I can think of in which a man is attracted to a woman’s art is 1954’s A Star Is Born, in which James Mason watches and listens to Judy Garland sing and both falls in love and perceives her genius — and that story ends in tragedy. For the most part, men aren’t shown to be drawn to creative greatness in women.

So it shouldn’t surprise me that my favorite movie about love and art doesn’t involve a man at all.

The 2019 French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire tells the story of Marianne, who comes to a remote island chateau to paint a portrait of a young aristocrat, Heloise, who has been called home from a convent following her sister’s death and now must marry to preserve her family’s fortunes. The portrait is meant to attract a husband, but Heloise, still shunning marriage, refuses to sit for it. Marianne must spend her days serving as Heloise’s walking companion and observing her in minute detail, and then commit all that she observes to canvas at night. It’s a job that, given the story’s late eighteenth century setting, only a female artist could do.

As the film progresses, Marianne and Heloise discover a spiritual kinship as well as sexual attraction; these are two women who genuinely enjoy each other’s company, and eventually, Heloise does consent to sit for Marianne. The screenplay rejects swoony romantic cliches in favor of realistic dialogue, as the women first feel each other out and then come to admire and love each other. The aura of romance isn’t conveyed by a musical score — the film doesn’t have one — but by the camera and lighting. The soft- focus beauty of each shot makes it clear we’re seeing a story of love, not mere lust. And all the while, art is being created, as we see the paintbrush stroke the canvas.

Of course, the 1780s having been what they were, we can’t expect happily ever after. Yet the tragic ending we might have thought was coming is avoided in favor of a realistic conclusion that feels almost happy by comparison. I won’t give too many details, as I want you, my readers, to see the movie. But overall, Marianne and Heloise lift each other up. Each is better for having known the other.

Now I’m left to see just how long I’ll have to wait for the next good movie that shows a woman artist at work.