The Paintings: Orpheus and #28
There is no puzzle at the heart of Portrait, but Sciamma plants pieces of the ending throughout the narrative. The depiction of how Marianne and Héloïse fell in love is buttressed by a framing device in which Marianne is teaching an art class to a group of young women. One of her students pulls out her painting of Héloïse, her dress quite literally on fire, prompting Marianne to reminisce. In total, Marianne and Héloïse only spend about two weeks in each other's company, and in that period they transform from reluctant companions into friends into lovers. Their time together is just that, and when Marianne leaves Brittany that is the last time they were knowingly in each other's company.
When Sciamma flashes back to Marianne's classroom that could very well be the end of the tale, but it's the beats that remain that are the most devastating. Marianne describes the last two times she encounters Héloïse. The first time it's just Héloïse's image. Marianne is at a gallery, standing watch over a painting of hers she submitted in her father's name so it could be exhibited. The work is an image of Orpheus and Eurydice, depicting the moment just as Orpheus has turned around to gaze at his beloved, who reaches out for him as she is being dragged back to the underworld.
Earlier in the film, Marianne and Héloïse debate the infamous myth with Sophie, the young maid, who wonders why Orpheus looks at Eurydice, aware that it would result in her demise. Marianne speculates that he made a "choice" to live with Eurydice's memory, but Héloïse counters: Perhaps Eurydice told Orpheus to turn around. For Marianne and Héloïse's story, both are essentially true. Both women have agency, but they know that their time together is limited. Sciamma explained in an interview with Vox why she chose this specific allegory.
"Orpheus and Eurydice is a myth that has been looked at by feminists a lot, because it’s basically about how the male gaze can kill you," she said. "This tradition of looking at Orpheus and Eurydice like that and trying to see the point of Eurydice was, for me, a way to play with this myth." She noted in a separate conversation that she doesn't have an opinion as to whose interpretation is the "right" one.
If Marianne's painting is her depiction of herself as the legendary poet deciding to turn around, the following moment finds Héloïse as Eurydice telling her Orpheus to make the move. Almost as if feeling the presence of her lover, Marianne makes her way through the throngs of people and finds herself in front of a portrait of Héloïse. In it, Héloïse looks softer than she did in the one Marianne painted. She's bathed in a warm light and a blonde-haired girl, her daughter presumably, is beside her. But there's a book on her lap open just slightly to page 28.
As they are in bed together, conscious that this is one of the last times they will be able to be in that position, Héloïse asks Marianne for a self-portrait to remember her by. Marianne asks in return for a page number, and the sketches herself, naked, onto page 28 of the book from which they read about Orpheus and Eurydice. By demanding that the figure play a role in this new image of her, Héloïse acts out her version of Eurydice, calling out to Marianne from a world away through a book in a painting.