Film & Television

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’:
Love Lives in the Female Gaze

In 1976, movie critic Laura Mulvey published the essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In it, she proposed that movies are written, directed, and shot from the perspective of the patriarchy — or, as she coined it, “the male gaze.” Female characters are eroticized to fulfill male voyeuristic behavior. Male characters are dominant; female characters are dominated. In essence, movies, Mulvey argued, reinforce the accepted gender stereotypes of our society.

Forty-five years later, it would be nice to report that this has changed. But a quick trip to your local multiplex will affirm Mulvey’s thesis rather than challenge it. How many posters do we see with a team of dominant men and a single, shapely woman? The answer is: too many.

At Women’s Voices for Change, we go out of our way (quite literally — sometimes twenty or thirty miles out of our way) to find films that tell stories through a feminist lens. 

Or, as award-winning director/screenwriter Céline Sciamma puts it, “the female gaze.”

Sciamma has described her latest film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, as a “manifesto on the female gaze.” The story centers around three women, with a fourth off-camera through much of it but driving the plot nonetheless. There are a handful of unnamed men at the movie’s start, and a few at its end (only one has any lines at all). And not only is the film —which earned Best Screenplay at Cannes and was nominated for the Palme d’Or— very much a women’s story, but the act of gazing, of women being allowed to look intently at each other and at life, becomes a symbol of rebellion and a source of power.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire begins in an art studio. Instructor Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is modeling for a class of young painters, directing them to examine different aspects of her figure. “Take time,” she tells them as she poses. “Look at my hands.”  

She notices one of her own paintings that a student has found and pulled from storage. It’s a surreal nightscape with a woman whose skirt is in flames. “What is it called?” the student asks. Portrait de la jeune fille en feu,” Marianne responds. Portrait of a young girl on fire.

The scene flashes back to a journey Marianne took years before. Rowed in an open boat on rough seas, she’s brought to a remote island off the Brittany coast. She struggles up a cliff weighed down by a flat wooden crate (and a terribly wet dress) and at last arrives at a crumbling chateau. Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), a maid, lets her in and shows her to a neglected parlor. Marianne unpacks her supplies — the crate contains canvases — and enjoys a pipe, sitting nude in front of the fire while her dress dries. This early sequence feels a bit like Jane Eyre arriving at Thornfield Hall, or Ada McGrath arriving in New Zealand in 1993’s The Piano. But, despite the gothic setup, it is clear that Marianne is her own woman and utterly self-sufficient.

The next day, Marianne meets the mistress of the house, a comtesse (Valeria Golino) who has engaged her to paint a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The painting will be delivered to a wealthy nobleman in Milan. If he likes what he sees, he will marry her and both she and her mother will go to Italy. There are challenges, however. The presumptive bridegroom was originally meant for Héloïse’s sister. However, she fell (or jumped) from a cliff to her death. Héloïse, who had been in a convent, was brought home to take her sister’s place. She is resisting the plan, and Marianne is the second artist the comtesse has commissioned. The first left when Héloïse refused to sit for him. To avoid another fruitless effort, the comtesse has told her daughter that Marianne is there as a companion for walks. She asks the painter to do the portrait in secret at night.

We don’t actually see Héloïse until nearly a half hour has passed, and our first glimpse is shrouded and mysterious. She still wears the cape and hood she wore at the convent. As she and Marianne begin their daily walks, the artist scrutinizes her, knowing that she’ll have to paint from memory. Héloïse, deeply resentful of her situation, regards Marianne with suspicion. “What did you like about the convent?” she’s asked. She answers that there were books and music, and that “Equality is a pleasant feeling.”



Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.