Turning Womanhood into Art: How Céline Sciamma Crafted the Most Important Scene of the Year

Images: Lilies Films

Picture the scene. Three women: a painter, her model, and a servant, arrive to the house of a faiseuse d’anges (angel maker). The servant lies down on a bed next to a fidgeting baby and the woman starts performing an abortion on her. The painter cannot bear the sight and looks away but the model reminds her to look, to which she complies, looking at the rest of the abortion, and the camera with her. Later that night the three women re-stage the image together and paint it.

This moment happens two thirds into Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma’s masterpiece, which was awarded at Cannes with Best Screenplay and the Queer Palm and has gone on to becoming one of the most acclaimed movies of the year, possibly of the decade. The film takes place in the France of the 18th Century and depicts the love story between painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and noblewoman Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the “Lady on Fire” of the title whose wedding portrait Marianne is commissioned to paint in secret due to Héloïse’s resistance to the arranged marriage. Subjected to universal praise, Sciamma’s latest effort has been hailed as a manifesto for the female gaze, one of those rare instances of a type of cinema that doesn’t objectify its female characters but rather looks at them with care and respect, as ‘real’ women. However, this genuinely groundbreaking aspect of the film has somewhat overshadowed other instances of Sciamma’s challenge to conventions – in history and in storytelling – and if the female gaze is immediately striking in how it visually argues against the traditional male perspective, Sciamma refuses to stop there and instead crafts a revolutionary picture that is, above all, about the reconstitution of the female experience. No scene conveys this better than the moment in which the servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) goes through an abortion and later reproduces it with Héloïse for Marianne to paint.

One of the ambitions Sciamma had when she set on writing Portrait of a Lady on Fire was the act of ‘giving back’ to women, to give them back their bodies, their desires, their talents. To speak about experiences that have been erased from history or simply have never been passed on because the way history is transmitted has been altered and dictated by a predominantly male point of view. This desire is reflected in every writing choice, from major plot points to small, visual details interwoven within the narrative. For instance, the movie is set at the end of the Eighteenth Century because that was a time when women artists were flourishing and Sciamma wanted to show a woman at work. The dresses of the characters are shown as having pockets to point out the fallacy in the general belief of a linear progress towards gender equality (women used to have pockets in their dresses before they were forbidden during the 19th Century on the grounds that they should not be able to hide anything). Attention is drawn to the talent required in embroidering, which was legitimately an art form before being de-classed to ‘craft’ since it was something predominantly practiced by women. 

Asked about the dynamics of oppression in stories of forbidden love and desire, Sciamma said, “If you live in a world that won’t allow you to live out your desire, it doesn’t mean the desire is gone, and just because you don’t run, it doesn’t mean you don’t want to. These words can easily be applied to the experience of women and their erasure from history. Just because those stories weren’t told, it doesn’t mean the women who lived them didn’t exist. Just because their experiences are erased, it doesn’t mean they don’t happen. It would be easy to relegate those issues to a distant past and say that things are better and all problems have been fixed, but Sciamma takes a radical stand against this erroneous belief by bringing to the fore of her film something that is as silenced and frowned upon now as it was centuries ago: an abortion scene that is at once unflinching, ordinary, and exceptionally compassionate.

Why does Portrait of a Lady on Fire feel so modern despite being a period piece and not being at all anachronistic? Because the themes and subject matters it tackles are still incredibly relevant today, which is never more evident than with Sophie’s abortion storyline. Abortion is still one of the most controversial topics debated today. There are political and economic interests attached to making this act into a taboo, objecting morally or religiously to it is often the easiest way to try to exert control on women’s bodies and deprive them of their agency, because domination through emotional manipulation is much more insidious and harder to resist. Shame and stigmatization can make discussing this topic uncomfortable even for those in favor of it. And maybe this is the exact reason why Sciamma decided to have the scene in the movie, one of the very first scenes she knew she wanted in the movie. She took something everybody is uncomfortable with and made the audience confront with the reality of it, and with how common that reality is for women.

The scene in itself is crafted masterfully, achieving a perfect balance in thematic and emotional depth that not many filmmakers are able to pull off. There is almost no dialogue, but everything is said through the visuals. The girl having an abortion lies on the bed next to a baby, taking comfort from that baby when the pain of the procedure overwhelms her. Sophie holds the baby’s hand, she smiles at him when he squeezes her nose. The message is as simple as it is radical: having an abortion doesn’t mean hating children, or that the person going through it is never going to want to have children. What matters is that in this moment in her life, this girl doesn’t want one, and she shouldn’t be judged or shamed for it, only supported. It could have been easy to have a scene of Marianne and Héloïse talking about Sophie’s pregnancy, discussing what she should do with her body or whether it is moral to help her. It would have even been justified by the characters’ background, with Héloïse having spent most of her life in a convent. But none of that happens. Sophie tells Marianne she doesn’t want the baby and she and Héloïse immediately help her with it. Solidarity is framed not only as the right response, but as the only response.

Just because abortion is treated as something natural in the film, doesn’t mean it is treated callously or as something trivial. There is no shying away from the reality of the pain that can be involved in this experience. The viewer is made to witness the physical suffering Sophie puts herself through and the emotional toll it takes on her, and even if Portrait is set in the past, to this day there are women who are forced to undergo dangerous, potentially lethal procedures because, through monetary and legislative restrictions, autonomy over their bodies is fought against or entirely denied to them. Sciamma is perfectly aware of how much pain is part of being a woman and she is adamant about showing that reality too, just like she is adamant about showing the internalized shame that can be attached to it. Marianne doesn’t hesitate in helping Sophie, she herself had an abortion in the past, so she knows exactly what is happening there. And yet, she cannot bring herself to look. She, a painter whose job and passion is to look, cannot do it. Her knee-jerk reaction is to avert her gaze, and the effect is the same for the audience watching, purposefully so.

One of the secret strengths of Portrait is how it engages with its audience; it feels like it is looking right back at those who are watching, like it is establishing a dialogue not only amongst its characters but with the viewer too. I personally witnessed the interactive, affecting power of the movie when, during a screening, a woman sitting next to me looked away at the beginning of the scene, but when Héloïse tells Marianne, “Look”, the woman looked up at the screen again and no longer looked away. This isn’t just Héloïse reminding Marianne to look, which is already a subversive choice wherein a model, the stereotypically looked-at ‘object’, is telling a painter, who is traditionally considered the ‘active’ part of the artist-muse duo, to look at an image. This is the film reminding its audience to look, to look at something that happens every day and will keep happening no matter how much people try to hide it or erase it or make it hell for women. Revolutionary changes happen when something that used to be demonized start being normalized. Portrait presents something that is still a taboo, possibly the most demonized experience that is also strictly female, and shows it for what it really is: something normal. And then, it takes it one step further.

Art: Paula Rego, 1998-1999

Between 1998 and 1999, Portuguese-born artist Paula Rego produced a nameless series of works commonly known as Untitled: The Abortion Pastels, depicting women undergoing different stages of an abortion. With few, rare exceptions in contemporary art, that’s about all there is when it comes to artistic representations of abortion. It is an everyday event and yet, it is completely left out of art history, further increasing the alienation and feeling of ‘wrongness’ linked to the act. In a movie about art, about women, and about giving back what was erased or never told, what makes more sense than painting something that was never painted before? Strictly within the text of the movie, no direct reason is stated as to why Héloïse decides to reproduce Sophie’s abortion, but it can be inferred from her character. She herself has been treated like an object, an image to paint for someone else’s pleasure, and has then shifted into the role of collaborator, becoming just as active as Marianne in the process of creation. She has seen and arguably felt the difference between art driven by materialistic goals and art that carries meaning. So, she witnesses the abortion, and she wants it painted, because even with the little experience she has had with life, she can tell it’s something that should be recorded. Maybe exactly because it made Marianne so uncomfortable she had to look away, maybe exactly because she saw the pain Sophie put herself through. It shouldn’t be hidden, it should be immortalized.

Representation gives value to an experience. It is a statement in itself, it says, “This is worth showing, remembering”. So much of being a woman has been and is about control and forbiddance and domination, about what women are and are not allowed not just to do, but to be. Portrait of a Lady on Fire has a woman (in the film and behind the camera), taking the most forbidden, the most violently silenced and suppressed experience women can go through, and turning it into a work of art. Cinema doesn’t get more transcendent, and more beautiful, than that.

by Vittoria Benedetti

Vittoria Benedetti is a Creative Writing and English Literature student based in London. Her favorite films include Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Thelma. She thinks cinema is the best art form to explore the depths of human nature and the complexity of the world, and sometimes, it is powerful enough to change it. She dreams of being a screenwriter and one day creating something as moving and impactful as Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Twitter: @witchesonfire7

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