Portrait and The Lighthouse: Your Work is not Your Own

4 min readMar 19, 2020


Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Sciamma, 2019) and The Lighthouse (Eggers, 2019) are two of the most celebrated films of last year but that’s far from their only similarity. Both movies centre the developing relationships of two people isolated on an island though to drastically different ends. Despite clear tonal and thematic oppositions, I couldn’t help but feel like beyond their surface level premise the two films share some very specific but not widely covered DNA. While Portrait is about a portrait artist hired to paint a woman in secret quickly falling for her subject, The Lighthouse tells the story of two lighthouse keepers slowly losing their grip on reality when they no longer have a society to tell them who they are. The unifying idea I think here is that struggle between labour and passion, highlighted in starkly different ways by the nature of both film’s chosen form of work.

Both films begin with an arrival upon on island, which swiftly becomes a place that is necessarily distinct from the mainland or the "real world" by virtue of what ideas it does and doesn’t carry over from those places, be that New England or the upper class of 18th century France. The island acts as a place where the rules are up to its inhabitants but only to the extent that they can unlearn the ways of the world in which they have been raised. The freedom this new world allows is both a blessing and a curse as it further forces its people to understand the cruelties of the place they’ve left behind and the knowledge that they will have to return to it. In very different ways this makes the passion of Portrait’s romance and The Lighthouse’s incredible violence more strongly felt because we come to understand them as defiances of the world they called home and the new status quos of the place they currently reside.

While both movies portray the same ultimate struggle, the kind of work is a significant factor in just how that manifests. Marianne is a portrait artist and while the film is set in a time where art is rigorously drilled into students as a craft defined by rules and tradition, there is a hope that the work she creates will still be her own, informed not by how she was taught to hold a brush or shape a face but how she as a person sees the world and more importantly, her subject. Portrait is, amongst many things about the struggle to make your work your own against a society who would rather have it serve no purpose other than to reflect their reality. It is about disillusionment with a world where that makes sense, that the things, be that love or art created with such passion, can be commodified by people who don’t care to understand them as anything else. This is an all too familiar struggle for artists trying to survive under capitalism, being forced to question the value of your work because you had to make it to survive.

Conversely, The Lighthouse is about striving to find the meaning we are told exists in work that would sooner break our backs and destroy our minds. The lie of capitalism, the American Dream, is that there is inherent virtue in working until we no longer can, that a lifetime spent in the dirt will earn us our day in the sun. The Lighthouse strips this conflict down to its smallest parts; the work, the competition and the reward. Though keeping a lighthouse and felling trees are undoubtedly jobs with a positive impact on the world, their reward is the tangible influence it has on the people around you and not some greater cosmic congratulations. This narrative however has been internalised by so many people throughout history because it is the story so many societies have mythologised around, it is inevitable that people will come to accept it even without thought when it is framed by the world around us as practically a fact. In The Lighthouse this reward takes the form of the titular light, an intentionally and consistently abstract goal as inaccessible as the upwards mobility that it represents. When Robert Pattinson’s Thomas, after fighting and killing and losing his mind to get there finally does, it immediately kills him too, because it’s something he was never meant to see and the world it reflects has no place for him nor interest in his survival.

Though the light is just that, it motivates incredible passion and through that the struggle in itself becomes part of the story. When these men are told that destroying themselves will allow them into this higher place then self destruction itself becomes competition, and eventually, pleasure.

Where Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Lighthouse cross paths is that the reality of these stories is that in any kind of capitalist society, your work is never truly your own. In Portrait this is made crystal clear by the fact that in the end, Marianne’s painting is never allowed to be more than the commodity it was intended, to promote her lover for a marriage in which she has no passion. Similarly, in The Lighthouse, there is no reward to come, no gratitude, only a body torn to nothing and left to rot.

Though these films share an understanding of the workings of the world, they differ slightly in how their characters react to it. In The Lighthouse, spontaneous, individualist acts of violence cannot make up for class solidarity nor will they ever help to further an understanding of who the antagonist here really is. Portrait, distincted here largely by the genuine love felt by its protagonists does not argue against this but its characters' small acts of rebellion feel infinitely more hopeful that something is being created vs everything being destroyed.