The eruption of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire at 30th place, the highest new entry in the poll, mirrors the meteoric rise of a director who had just begun her career at the time of the last poll. Her first three films, Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014), did much to redefine coming-of-age narratives, opening new horizons on youth and queer desire while manifesting a coherent stylistic vision, characterised notably by pareddown visuals. As a result, Sciamma, an alumna of the prestigious Paris film school La Fémis, swiftly rose to the pantheon of French auteur cinema (she scripts all her films). Unusually in the French context, she adroitly coordinated this cinephile pedigree with her lesbian identity and strongly articulated political – including feminist – positions.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire brought Sciamma’s work and status to another level. Her first costume film, set on a remote Breton island in the late 18th century, charts in a series of exquisite tableaux the intense passion between two women, a painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and her model Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Héloïse is to be married against her will to a rich man on the strength of the portrait. After initial resistance on both women’s parts, the painting becomes the conductor for their love for each other.
In Portrait, Sciamma fights patriarchal oppression first of all by creating a utopian, if temporary, all-women’s world. More fundamentally, the relationship between the two women develops as one of reciprocity and equality. The film thus rejects a hierarchical vision of desire and in the process updates the relationship between artist and model and the fetishised figure of the ‘muse’. Portrait’s egalitarian ethos evidently echoes Sciamma’s own commitment – among other things she is deeply involved in the Collectif 50/50, which fights for gender equality in the French film industry. But the film resonated with the ambient culture in other ways. When it came out in France in the autumn of 2019, Portrait appeared as the perfect illustration of the female gaze, a concept newly ‘discovered’ in a country that was still coming to terms, only slowly, with the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, about which both Sciamma and Haenel (formerly a couple) spoke out in various contexts. Portrait of a Lady on Fire demonstrates Sciamma’s ability to make a timelessly beautiful film that also crystallises the gender politics of her era.