How Portrait of a Lady on Fire celebrates the female gaze

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire offers a countermeasure to centuries of the male gaze in art, reaching out to other female artists and poets in its study of desire and creation, finds Ren Scateni, part of our LFF Critics Mentorship Programme.

26 February 2020

By Ren Scateni

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Since grabbing the Queer Palm and the award for best screenplay at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire has been winning over critics and audiences alike with its sumptuous flair and the poignant lesbian love story at its core.

Best known for her coming-of-age films, in which adolescents come to terms with burgeoning sexualities (Water Lilies, 2007), gender identity (Tomboy, 2011) or their place within a group’s dynamics (Girlhood, 2014), its French filmmaker is one of the most inspired and unapologetic voices on the contemporary film scene.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire breaks from the modern settings of these films by being mostly set in an elegant manor on a secluded island in 18th-century Brittany. The film centres on Marianne (Noémie Merlant), an independent painter who has been commissioned to do a wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who has recently returned home from a convent. Reluctant to be wedded off to a man she hasn’t even met, Héloïse isn’t aware of Marianne’s true purpose, believing the young woman is there to be her walking companion. Marianne must secretly observe Héloïse’s movements and mannerisms in order to subsequently paint them, and Sciamma’s film tracks this clandestine study in a delicate interplay of glances and gazes as the two women take long and intimate cliff-top walks.

Although women have usually taken centre stage in Sciamma’s modern-day films, Portrait of a Lady on Fire imagines a torn page in female history, a historical moment and setting when men are entirely in the margins. In the film, men are cast aside, seen only rarely – although their influence may be felt.

Historically, the male gaze has been the dominant way of looking in art. The female gaze has been suppressed or simply erased. Weaving an intricate thread of artistic references, Sciamma doesn’t want to rewrite the past in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Rather she embraces it while radically presenting her own subverted canon. Her film presents a treasure trove of female desire, reciprocated gazes, restraint, and ultimately portraiture as a way of fixing fleeting moments of life together as a sanctified memory.

Although it’s a period film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire exudes modernity without ever feeling anachronistic. Both Marianne and Héloïse navigate the strictures of their time, questioning the social rules they need to adhere to before dropping cutting remarks about the dominating clique of male painters.

There’s a scene later in the film that exemplifies how female artistic efforts are suppressed within a patriarchal world. Marianne is presenting one of her paintings at an exhibition when a man approaches her, commending the canvas and attributing it to her father. She explains that the painting is, in fact, hers, but she had to submit it in her father’s name – a typical example of how so many imaginative and proactive female minds have been overwritten in the past.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

To this appalling history, Sciamma provides a countermeasure: she investigates the female gaze, cherishes it, embellishes it with graceful vigour, but she also celebrates women in art, giving them a voice they can finally claim as their own.

One of these women is the French painter Hélène Delmaire, the real artist behind all the portraits we see on screen. Based in her studio in Lille, Delmaire explores intimate spaces where light and shadow dance together. Lush flowers reclaim centre stage in some of her oil paintings, where tradition meets with a contemporary investigation on human fragility and liminal spaces. Feminine and masculine as opposite concepts cease to exist in her works; bodies are depicted as vessels of melancholy and isolation. Naked figures lie together, softly connected by inches of skin, while gazes are averted, almost lost in self-contemplation, or completely cancelled by a resolute brushstroke, as in the intriguing female-focused series Eyeless.

It’s interesting to notice how these women, whose countenances ooze confidence, compare with Héloïse’s portraits – the one by the unnamed male painter who fled the island after his failure, and the two produced by Marianne. The male painter who was first commissioned with the work couldn’t paint Héloïse’s face because of her elusiveness, while Marianne’s first attempt is harshly criticised by Héloïse for being too rigidly canonical to convey spontaneity. As a result, Marianne wipes the face out, destroying the portrait with a defacement that gives it an eerie, almost postmodern allure.

Another perspective that has been neglected for far too long, but which finds its space in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is Eurydice’s. The Greek myth of Orpheus’s fateful love for Eurydice, in which the gods forbid Orpheus from looking at his wife or risk losing her to the underworld, plays a significant part in the film’s narrative, conferring on it an impending sense of doom. In a key scene where Marianne, Héloïse and the housemaid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) sit around a dimly candle-lit table reading and discussing the myth, different interpretations are thrown in. If Sophie naively believes Orpheus an imbecile for letting himself lose his wife forever, Marianne ponders whether the man made the poet’s choice rather than the lover’s by deciding to turn and condemn Eurydice to an eternity in the underworld.

It’s Héloïse, though, who offers the most radical of the interpretations: what if Eurydice was the one to say “turn around”, hence choosing her own fate?

The same reading of the myth can be found in a poem by Scottish author Carol Ann Duffy. In ‘Eurydice’, both voice and agency are finally given to the woman, who recalls a life wasted trailing behind Orpheus’s greatness. “Rest assured that I’d rather speak for myself […] In fact, girls, I’d rather be dead,” Eurydice says, and by titillating Orpheus’s ego one last time, she makes him turn, finally freeing herself from his grasp.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Lamenting Orpheus’s final betrayal is the Eurydice immortalised in a poem of the same name by H.D., the American poet Hilda Doolittle. Drawing from her personal experience of abandonment, H.D. portrays a sorrowful woman who mourns for the colours of the flowers blooming on the earth, which are lost to her forever. “Such loss is no loss” goes Eurydice’s tumultuous cry, continuing with a hammering river of words: “nor your veins of light / nor your presence, / a loss.”

Owning her torment, Eurydice finds in herself an unbreakable presence: she has been denied a second life, but she gained power over her own mind. And this, as Sciamma reminds us throughout her remarkable, richly allusive new film, is an exceptionally invaluable gift in a male-dominated world.

The LFF Critics Mentorship Programme ran as part of the 62nd BFI London Film Festival, in partnership with American Express®. 

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