Call 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' what it is: a Political Masterpiece

Lilies Films

At the premiere of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the world should have foreseen the immense feminist implications that the film would have when the director and screenwriter, Céline Sciamma and one of the film’s actresses, Adèle Haenel, showed up with “50/50” pins glimmering in gold to stand for gender equality in cinema. During the seemingly never-ending, multinational promotional tour for the film, the director and actresses have spoken time and time again on how the creation of the female gaze is a located one; it exists affirmatively in a polarised state as the male gaze exists neutrally. With Portrait, Sciamma pointedly declares that the revolution does not just begin in the home – it can also begin on the screen. And while that is definitely the case, after nine months of screenings, releases, and promotion, how is Portrait of a Lady on Fire still not regarded as a political enigma?

The story unravels slowly throughout the two-hour course of the film, showing what it means for two women to learn, love, and ultimately lose each other, entirely through the medium of creative collaboration. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired to paint Héloïse’s portrait (Adèle Haenel) in secret for the Milanese man her mother, the Countess (Valerie Golino) chose for her to marry. Marianne arrives from Paris to an island off the coast of Brittany, where she spends her days watching Héloïse and burning her contours and colours into her memory to ultimately impose onto a canvas at nightfall. Héloïse, unaware of Marianne’s true reason for observing her at the castle, begins to study her surveyor as well, through shuttered looks and soft gazes.  While the film has gained heavy appraisal for portraying lesbian love in Prerevolutionary France, it is nothing short of contemporary. Sciamma meticulously threads the modern-day discourse of gaze, subjectivity, female body politics, and abortion through the craftmanship of reconstitution and memory to yield an immaculate representation of what life would be like for women free from the scrutiny of men. 

Calling the male gaze a “problem” in cinema even seems like an understatement because it is embedded in the history of how films are made; the male gaze has been integral to getting films produced, and equally so in further objectifying women in general. One of the most insidious adversaries of genuine lesbian representation on screen is a director’s use of a corroded lens rather than a clean mirror in order to portray female characters. Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, however, does away with both of these. She unscrews the lens, smashes the mirror, and hands her protagonist a paintbrush. Once Héloïse finally learns the truth, she agrees to pose, choosing her own fate and reclaiming her own bodily autonomy: nothing will be taken from her that she does not give. From then on, the story re-positions itself, and the lovers reclaim both their bodies and their stories. The subjectivity of both the painter and the model allows for an active exploration of one another, consent, and a willingness to be intimate. A perfect example of this is the scene executing the admission of love. Without any words or loss of rapture, Sciamma crafted the first kiss scene in a way where both women are subjects. She did this by having the two women, face to face, inches away, remove the wind-barring scarves from their mouths in near synchrony and thus, the first kiss ensues. With this scene and the Cannes Prix du Scenario in hand, Sciamma unprecedentedly wrote off the history of cinema and denounced all film personnel and viewers who have grossly claimed that “consent isn’t sexy.”

However, the aforementioned comment is never even brought forth to be bargained with in the film. There is no voice given to men, because as Sciamma says, her stories exist in a vacuum, allowing for no temporally or spatially “outside” influence, and since there are no men in this story, these female characters are existing in a continuum where their creations and intentions are regarded as having utmost importance in the film: Marianne’s art untainted by convention, their love unrepressed by conflict. The absence of men allows for gender equality, no dominance, no submission. It also allows for a complete demolition of class between women who come from different backgrounds, both financial, societal, and dispositional; the three core women are a Countess’s only remaining child, a trained painter, and a maid. When the film begins, these roles are enforced, as Héloïse is kept in the dark when it comes to her future marriage, forbidding her from both knowledge and choices; Marianne’s sole role is to paint Héloïse, fulfil her position as the woman hired to paint the Countess’s daughter; Sophie is only present to serve the Countess’s family and accommodate their guest. These defined roles according to the time period’s rigid social structures undergo complete transformation once the Countess leaves. On the beach, Sophie runs relays to exhaust her body and lose the child; while Marianne forcefully pushes her in the opposite direction as an aid, Sophie is careful not to approach Héloïse too closely. After she collapses from exhaustion, Héloïse approaches her and offers her hand, and with some hesitation, Sophie takes it. The interaction between these two characters serves as a complete turning point, the ultimate demolition of class structure. In what would otherwise be a parallel universe, the audience then bears witness to the Aristocrat, Héloïse cooking, the maid working on embroidery, and the painter observing the work of both. Furthermore, intellectual equality is demonstrated in the three of them reading and discussing Ovid’s Metamorphosis, with each fully demonstrating their own opinion without conceding to one another, and ultimately agreeing on the meaning of the test. 

In drafting a landscape literally away from the male gaze, Sciamma has seamlessly employed one of the most fundamental feminist concepts of the twentieth century, from Carol Hanisch’s eponymous 1970 essay, “The Personal is Political.” It is one of the clearest ways Sciamma politicises her characters – they do not express comportment that would have been influenced by patriarchal thought. When Marianne discovers that Sophie is pregnant, she does not hesitate when it comes to helping Sophie miscarry. Furthermore, Héloïse does not prevent her from seeking technical help in doing so. One may argue that this is not so unlikely as Marianne comes from Paris where she has free reign to work and move around as she pleases, engaging with ideas and reconstituting her surroundings as not just her job but her way of life; she would never be obligated to marry and thus has the ability to think beyond her companion. Héloïse, however, spent the entirety of her life as an eligible adult in a convent, only leaving because she was due to marry. She would have every ontological reason to react negatively, coming from life in a Catholic Church, in a country and a time period where the bible meant everything, and a woman’s body meant practically nothing. Instead, the film sequences shift seamlessly into Héloïse helping Sophie, searching for solutions to induce miscarriage, standing behind her, and accompanying her and Marianne to the cabin of the women performing the abortion.

Sciamma does not end the discourse on abortion here; she takes it one step further when Héloïse and Marianne follow Sophie into the cabin and watch the abortion take place. Initially, Marianne turns her face away while Héloïse’s eyes are glued to the image unravelling before her; when she notices Marianne’s hesitation, she tells her to “Look,” and at that moment you are no longer seeing Héloïse pull Marianne out of the dark, you are also seeing Sciamma herself reaching out to the audience and showing how much acceptance there can be in the face of revulsion if only we took the time to examine the entire picture. Later in the evening, in the half candlelit room, Héloïse feels compelled to recreate the scene so that Marianne could paint it, yearning to preserve the rawness and delicacy of Sophie’s autonomy and strength. This allows Héloïse to lock these moments away in her memory, to remind her of women acting autonomously for their bodies, in the future when she will have given herself to a fate she never desired.

Calling this a feminist film is not an extrapolated read on this body of work. No fantastical analysis has to be done in order for it to be considered political. The core of the film, memory, is no passive gesture that carries this love story throughout time; it is actually an active decision on Marianne’s part to remember Héloïse how she was in their limited time in place of letting herself be crushed under the unforgiving reality that would never allow both Marianne and Héloïse be happy and in love. When Marianne tells Héloïse “Don’t regret, remember” she is also convincing herself for a final time. These women make their own decisions and at the end of Marianne’s stay on the island, they seal off the impenetrable wrinkle of time so no part of the outside, patriarchal world can ever taint it. They make this decision, Céline Sciamma made this decision, the actresses made this decision, and a loyal audience makes the decision to believe them – entirely effortlessly. It is the ability of viewers to make secret promises to the creators that we are all on the same page in the struggle towards representation, and it is a political one indeed. It is now time for everyone to see that Portrait of a Lady on Fire, as Céline Sciamma said so herself, “…is changing the world.”

by Ariel Klinghoffer

Ariel K. is a bilingual Philly native transported across the Atlantic to France. She has degrees in Neuroscience and French, but is currently teaching English and experimenting with other things like film, writing, and photography. She thinks films are some of the strongest forms of activism, especially ones that construct the female gaze, and would trust her favorite filmmaker, Céline Sciamma with her life. Her favorite favorite film is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, her favorite book is Normal People, and her favorite candy is Kinder Bueno white. Twitter: @qqnenfeu. Letterboxd: @qqnenfeu

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