A steady fire bleeds upwards, casting a warm powdery light that breathes amidst the depths of a stone-wall fireplace. Two plain, damp canvases lean their outstretched corners onto the rim of the mantelpiece above and soak in the exhausted heat. The canvases are symmetrically placed, with one woman, Marianne played by Noémie Merlant, sat on the floor between them. She softly arches her back, draws her knees into her chest, the front part of her bare body encased in the glowing heat she so calmly positions herself near, and offhandedly begins to smoke from a pipe. As striking as this scene is on its own, I can’t help but think of it as an illusive gesture, a quiet unravelling of the titular painting that lies at the heart of the film, ‘Portrait with a Lady on Fire’, written and directed by Céline Sciamma.
In her fourth feature film, Sciamma creates an otherworldly take on art history. A period piece, set in 18thCentury Brittany, ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ centres around a love story that lies at the hands of its existing art context, a time when ‘a genuine surge in the presence of women in the art world’ had taken place. Parisian artist Marianne has been commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of Heloise, played by Adèle Haenel, a woman who has just left her previous life at a convent and now surrounds herself with solemn affliction as she awaits her undesired marriage to an Italian man. Despite a trivial beginning, the two women become tested to produce a portrait that, conducive of Heloise’s dreaded reality, instead, draws them into a desolate playing field of desire and tender, emotional attachment they can’t seem to escape.
The film, in its entirety, encumbers any pre-empted ideas of what a period piece might typically entail. Although love and art are widely used cinematic tropes, Sciamma is able to draw us into refreshingly radical territory with her innovative bridging of obscurely heartfelt moments that remain tangible and relevant outside of the film. Described by Sciamma as a “manifesto on the female gaze”, ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ hoists a departure from the scopophilic lens we see women so often portrayed through in film, placing the female perspective before that of the male. The “male gaze”, a term conceived by film theorist Laura Mulvey, has been a definitive storytelling template for many acclaimed films, despite its lacking in socio-political correctness. It is one disconcerting trope that is designed solely to suit the voyeuristic desires of the heterosexual male viewer, character and filmmaker.
But with the male gaze, came “the female gaze”, a responsive term that draws diametrical links between the two and takes women out of these absurd idealisations. Sciamma sculpts each scene of the film “as a unit of desire” allowing her to “depart from convention” of this kind, as every moment lends itself to the next in a way that is so unorthodox. They share equal pertinence in the film’s plot, keeping in time with the story, and sustaining the instigative nature of the gaze itself as central to most scenes. The gaze becomes a bold talking point in the film for which everything else remains silent between Marianne and Heloise. Each look they share almost rings in your ears, magnifying their thoughts and feelings to draw us closer to each woman’s introspect. Claire Mathon’s cinematography in this film strengthens the power of the female gaze, through her many close ups and careful use of blocking to enliven the intimacy of their love story.
It must be added that Sciamma’s construction of dialogue, which won her Best Screenplay in Cannes 2019, is so coherently spoken throughout the film and progresses harmoniously alongside every strike of a character’s eye. Interestingly, when tensions arise during the film to a painstaking capacity, there is a lapse in conflict, even in scenes we would suspect there to be some dialogical backlash. Sciamma’s stylistic choice of dialogue assists this “lack of conflict” for the purpose, she says, of creating a “new power dynamic that allows surprises and new suspense”, effectively enticing the viewer onwards.
The equal partnership formed between Marianna and Heloise, one that is also shared with the maid Sophie, played by Luàna Bajrami, allows overarching power to be suppressed and, indeed, blurred. We see a working relationship between the artist and the muse that, as Sciamma describes, will “depart from fetishised muse tradition”. Both Sciamma and Mathon work to suggest intellectual and physical uniformity amongst all three women, more notably through the collaborative partnership between the two lovers. During the film, each woman’s individual story is treated with respectful consideration. In doing this, no utopic reality is forged and several issues arise linked to the female experience that still concern the modern-day realities many women face today, such as abortion, female menstruation and forced marriage. But, the director goes one step further by commending each female character for the experiences they have to go through, one notable gesture being when Sophie relives her experience of having an abortion as Marianne creates a painted account.
The film’s patent loyalty to the female gaze signifies a new beginning for film. Sciamma helps set an example for female representation and leaves room for further discussion. Undeniably, social media has embodied such a role, playing a part in shaping the minds of young and older women in standing up for their female rights. The ‘Be a Lady They Said’ video, directed by Paul Mclean and narrated by Cynthia Nixon for the magazine Girls Girls Girls, is just one of many “wake-up” calls that delve into the incongruent aspects of the male gaze that have so long determined the standards for which women set themselves. The video, now having amassed to over 3 million views on Instagram, alerts its viewers that there are greater things out there for women than merely trying to “be a lady”.
Emancipating women from gender norms certainly reflects aspects of the film’s thematic commentary, as audiences get to witness an “unconventional power dynamic” that projects these women as being something more than subjects to patriarchal constraint, despite its prevailing presence. Sciamma teases out these patriarchal tropes, not by objectifying women, but alluding to its effects. It is what brings Marianne and Heloise together and, inevitably, tears them apart. But, this looming burden merely wavers in the background as the gaze becomes a portal hole for both women, proving, as Sciamma points out, that “their story is impossible but their love isn’t”. “It’s about how their desire will be fulfilled for a moment”, she says, with their love remaining as a ubiquitous art form when they cannot physically be together. Effectively, there is a lasting sense of virtue that exists between them, that only they know of, and will continue to prove their love in the hopes that the other will, eventually, see.
‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is a transcendent period piece, a visually captivating display of the female gaze. It discerns an important history, that becomes intersected with contemporary concern, and casts female characters who are beautifully unique in their own right.
Words and Illustration, Gabriella Persia