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"Portrait of a Lady on Fire" - The Female Gaze: A How-To Guide on Caving Under It

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, written and directed by Céline Sciamma of Girlhood (2014), begins at its end, or beyond it. As the film opens, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is teaching a room of young women how to look at her and see a subject they can paint. This is an interesting beginning, as the title of the movie tells us that this is story about a portrait. But is it really? It seems to be framed within the narrative of a portrait as its goal and product. But there is more in the middle: a love story? The memory of love? An exploration of desire?

Portrait of a Lady on Fire poster, 2019

Marianne, a painter in 18th Century France, is commissioned by a Countess (Valeria Golino) to produce a wedding portrait of her daughter Heloïse (Adèle Haenel). The catch is that this must be done in secret, as the young woman refuses to pose. A painter failed before her: Marianne must not.

Héloïse is introduced through her refusal, this small act of rebellion. Haenel succeeds in portraying her as a mask of mystery as the film opens. Her performance is helped by the fact that Héloïse is not seen. She is faceless, much like the first painter’s failed portrait of her. Marianne walks behind her on their first walk and as Heloïse quickens the pace her hood falls onto her shoulders a rivulet of blonde hair is revealed. Bit by bit, we glimpse pieces of her just as Marianne does. Claire Mathon’s cinematography teases us just like Céline Sciamma's writing does. We do not see her until suddenly we do: she breaks into a run that would have ended in her death had she not abruptly stopped at the edge of a cliff. Marianne skids to a stop behind her and her subject turns. She’s hungry to see beyond the mask that Héloïse puts up, but the latter will not budge: frowning, giving her nothing.

Still from Portrait of a Lady on Fire poster, 2019

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant carry the film with their silence and missed gazes. Sciamma often leaves the audience looking at them gazing at each other. What will happen when they finally meet halfway? Someone might get burned—quite literally, as the title suggests. As an audience we feel as if we are intruding on an intimate conversation. A complicated power dynamic that asks who hold the power and who will succumb first? If succumb is even the right word, that is.

Marianne initially observes Heloïse with music by Jean-Baptiste de Laurier acting as the only words between them. They sit at the beach and Marianne steals a look, Heloïse notices and stares back, questioning, stuck in a frown. They play this game for minutes on end as we see Marianne’s paintbrush falter over her canvas. What kind of art can she produce without her subject’s consent? This is where we realize that what we could have conceived as an unbalanced power-relation was in fact equal after all: Marianne holds the power alongside her paintbrush. She is the active agent, observing. When Héloïse gives herself as subject willingly she also finds her own agency.

Sciamma masterfully captures the power of one’s gaze. It is through stolen looks that Marianne paints Héloïse for the first time, but the portrait born out of her deceit is one that fails to represent her subject.

Still from Portrait of a Lady on Fire poster, 2019

Sciamma has written a story that differs in many ways from her trilogy of coming-of-age films: Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011), and Girlhood (2014). Yet, to me Portrait of a Lady on Fire feels like a natural progression after those titles, as Sciamma similarily traps us in a female-dominated world. Portrait of a Lady on Fire has already been described as presenting us with the reality of the female gaze but to me, it is more than that. It’s a story of how a woman could live as a painter at that time, and of how her existance in a male-dominated sphere is all but erased from history. The film moves Héloïse from an object of Marianne’s gaze as an artist to that of a collaborator. In her writing and directing, Sciamma strips the idea of the silent, ethereal, muse of its authority and creates a new one. As the two women’s relationship develops into one of trust, desire, and ultimately love: she is a muse that looks back.

Edited by Charlee Kieser, Deputy Digital Editor

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