Programme Notes: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after watching the film. They contain detail of characters and plot.

Film scholar Laura Mulvey famously wrote that all cinema is filtered through a male gaze. Under the scrutiny of this voyeuristic gaze, women are rendered on screen as objects that only exist to be looked at.[1] If there was ever a definitive film that challenges the idea that looks are solely relayed through men’s eyes, it may well be Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The act of looking is weaponised, it’s studious, careful and precise. The eyes become negotiators and examiners. When words are left unsaid, the resolute glances exchanged between the young lovers take on a tender power that is almost impossible not to be completely transfixed and devastated by. In the words of Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a ‘manifesto about the female gaze.’ [2]

The story is intrinsically linked with this act of looking. An artist named Marianne is commissioned to paint a portrait of a young aristocrat, Héloïse. However, Héloïse refuses to sit for the portrait, as the painting will be a gift for her arranged marriage and so Marianne is tasked with painting her in secret. Such a job requires her to closely examine every one of her subject’s features. We learn of the importance of the curvature of the ear, and to take note of how the hair rests on it. Marianne picks up on mannerisms: she knows that Héloïse bites her lip when she’s embarrassed and doesn’t blink when she’s angry. Being an artist, it seems, is akin to falling in love, learning the details of a person inside and out.

Prior to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the French filmmaker had crafted a trilogy of empathetic coming-of-age films that explore young women’s journeys of discovering their own sexuality, identity and desire. Sciamma’s career has undergone its own coming of age as well, having now graduated to adulthood, but still depicting the same necessary story about women coming into their own. Actress Adèle Haenel, who starred in Sciamma’s debut feature Water Lilies, reunites with the director, and though critics have frequently referred to her as Sciamma’s muse, such a description undercuts their working relationship. The muse isn’t an object to be looked at, but is a collaborator in her own right. It’s a dynamic that is also integral to Héloïse and Marianne’s relationship, which is devoid of any differences in power. According to Sciamma: ‘At the centre of the film is this idea that there is no muse, or that it’s a beautiful word for hiding the reality of how women have been collaborating with artists.’ [3]

In that sense, the film is just as much about collaboration as it is about burgeoning desire and romance. Sciamma creates an egalitarian, feminine utopia free of hierarchy. In a story where blossoming love is almost overwhelming, and the sound of Vivaldi can bring audiences to tears, one of the film’s most powerful shots is simply of three women, Marianne, Héloïse and the house’s maid, Sophie, silently working in a kitchen. Rather than serve as set decoration, each woman in the story has her own purpose and her own narrative. After spending two hours with only women, Marianne’s eventual return to a world shared with men is almost jarring. The bubble is burst.

Sciamma was inspired to set her film in 18th century Brittany after learning about the rich art scene for female painters that emerged just before the French Revolution. There were hundreds of women painters: Picasso’s ‘muse’, Dora Maar, was a talented Surrealist artist in her own right; Gabrièle Buffet-Picabia, wife of French avant-garde artist Francis Picabia, was a prominent member of the dada movement herself.4 Not that many people are aware of this thriving space: like most women pioneers, their stories have largely been forgotten in history, a blind spot which Sciamma’s film seeks to rectify.

Perhaps the film’s most radical property is that it relays not just a female gaze, but a lesbian gaze to the past. Lesbian identity isn’t a marker for progress exclusive to the contemporary, it has existed all throughout time. Sciamma’s cinema gives women of all generations a voice, as well as the power of the look. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, and in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, they’re a window to the heart too. In communicating solely through the eyes, desire becomes a small flame that slowly burns, until it transforms into a ferocious blaze that can’t be contained.

Iana Murray, Freelance Writer
March 2020

1 Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. (1975).
4 ibid.

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