‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’: Céline Sciamma on Lesbian Identity

Image: The Hollywood Reporter

“The label of ‘lesbian’ is only restrictive if you consider our imaginations to be small,” Céline Sciamma declares firmly, unknowingly summarising much of her career thus far. We stood in the rain at BFI London Film Festival, just prior to the UK premiere of her latest creative success story, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. At this point in the film’s trajectory, the festival buzz surrounding the film is in full swing, though its beauty has yet to generate the full, unwavering attention of critics and lesbian film fans alike, affectionately known as ‘Portrait Nation’. 

Sciamma doesn’t yet know the depth of her film’s impact on the lesbian film world, but her words on that rainy day betray a deep love for an identity oft demonised and belittled. 

“I don’t consider the label a restrictive thing because I know how dangerous it is to consider that label a restrictive thing,” she continues. “To add dimension to that label would change a lot of things for a lot of women, and not only lesbians. So, no, it’s not restrictive, it’s people that have a restrictive image of it and we need to widen that image.”

Sciamma’s work in the area of gender and sexuality makes its own argument against the idea that identity is restrictive; her coming-of-age debut Water Lilies dabbles in the formation of such sexual identities during youth, whilst Tomboy explores the freedom of gender through the perspective of a child. In her latest work, Sciamma finally approaches the adult subject. Portrait never once utters the magic word ‘lesbian’, nor do the protagonists even verbally recognise their sexuality, but this lack of discursive trouble feels refreshing. For once, the identity of two women in love is portrayed through their feelings towards each other, rather than their alienation from the rest of society. 

The quiet truth of Heloise and Marianne’s identity does not mean that Sciamma wishes to silence those discussing her film as a lesbian story — on the contrary, she encourages and engages with the labelling of her work as uniquely lesbian art. For many lesbians, her dedication to the identity enables their own engagement with the film as representative of their desire, even if the subjects within the film experienced their desire hundreds of years ago. In the modern age, Sciamma validates a new generation of lesbians, who seek reclamation of an identity often associated with violent pornography and insult. 

Noemie Merlant (Marianne) believes that the lesbian identity of Portrait extends beyond its existence as a period drama. “Even if it’s a period movie, the film is modern and it is really important right now to have more movies like that, and to have more movies with the vision of women and the history of women that we have missed,” she explains, when asked about the film’s lesbian identity. “I hope it will continue and for that we need more movies and more support.”

Externally, in the form of a female director and internally, with all four of the main cast being women, Portrait of a Lady on Fire exists almost entirely within the female gaze. Sciamma continued this energy within her crew, though not intentionally; “My set’s pretty much fifty-fifty. I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to work with everybody. Creating a very collaborative, super cool atmosphere and a very joyful set relies on a good balance between different members of the crew. Most of the bosses were women and most of the team were men — which means they are used to working under the direction of the women. I only know my set, and my sets are always quite hybrid and female.”

Unsurprisingly, this hybrid environment is commended by Noemie, who found Céline’s mixed-gender set to be essential to the production of a feminist film. 

“It felt great. It was a really good sensation to experience something new, to experience a film that talks about women, their intimacy, their history that we missed so much,” Noemie states. “Only women can really talk deeply about that, because it’s what we live.”

Noemie’s words perfectly epitomise the reasons for the film’s strong resonation with gay audiences; in her pride for her diverse team, her dedication to the sexualities of her characters and her innate knowledge of the subject at hand, Sciamma has created a uniquely authentic reflection on the lesbian gaze. Even more touching, perhaps, is her handling of the topic in the media — in Céline Sciamma, lesbians have gained an inspirational example of how we can be proud of our gaze, of our label and of our identity.

by Megan Christopher

Megan Christopher is a freelance film and culture journalist based in Manchester, UK. She has written for outlets such as Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, i_D and Gay Essential. Her writing tends to focus on issues of identity and sexuality. Outside of journalism, Megan’s main interests are WKD, crop tops and lesbianism.

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