Film & Television

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

Gradually, the two women become friends and when Marianne’s painting is complete, she insists that she must show it to Héloïse before revealing it to the comtesse. Héloïse is angry about the deception and criticizes the painting, which is too flattering and clearly meant to be admired by a man. “I didn’t know you were an art critic,” Marianne snaps. “I didn’t know you were an artist,” Héloïse snaps back. 

Marianne begins again, this time with Héloïse’s cooperation (much to her mother’s surprise and delight). The comtesse must leave for a few days, so Marianne and Héloïse are left alone with Sophie. Together, the three become an unconventional and supportive makeshift family. They attend a bonfire where village women sing a complex and haunting chorus. There’s a sense that women are, if not witches per se, magical. At one point, a local midwife is asked to help end an unwanted pregnancy. So many movies depict abortions that are botched and end in tragedy. Oddly enough, it is presented here as just another way women support each other. In fact, it is visually linked to childbirth and family, sisterhood and art.

Each day, Marianne works on Héloïse’s portrait. Although her job is to observe her subject, she is also observed. The two women learn each other by heart and soon fall in love. “Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?” Héloïse wonders. They compare notes on when their attraction began. “You dreamed of me?” Marianne asks. “No,” Héloïse corrects her, “I thought of you.”

The female solidarity in these scenes is striking. The women know that their relationship is doomed from the start. Not only is it impossible to imagine a lesbian life together, but Marianne is actually creating the object that will separate them forever. At one point, Marianne plays Vivaldi on a dusty pianoforte and tells Héloïse that she will have access to art and music in Milan. “You’re saying,” Héloïse flatly responds, “That now and then, I’ll be consoled.” As they gaze together at the portrait, Héloïse asks, “How do we know when it’s finished?”

Marianne replies alluding to the painting but also their affair, “At one point, we stop.”

The individual performances of Merlant and Haenel — as well as the undeniable chemistry between them — are intensely passionate. And the film has been heralded as an important work of lesbian cinema. But there is a distinct difference between the love scenes here and those in 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color, which received similar praise. The New York Times criticized director Abdellatif Kechiche’s sex scenes, saying that he was “oblivious to real women,” and that “the movie feels far more about Mr. Kechiche’s desires than anything else.” Both stars, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, expressed a feeling of having been manipulated and said that they would never work with him again. The difference between the male gaze and the female gaze becomes very obvious when the focus is on love between two women.

In an interview with The Irish Times, Sciamma explained, “The love between the characters is part of the language of the film. When you are bringing a love story to screen, how do you embody desire and love? How do you get away from the conventions of romantic comedy where it’s love at first sight? The fact that it wasn’t a contemporary film meant it was even more important to be innovative. There is this line in which they say that love is inventing something as you go along. Love is like a language that you didn’t speak an hour ago. So I wanted that love between the characters to become a love between the characters and the viewers of the film. I wanted to make something that breaks your heart. That’s a spoiler.”

The end of the movie, which I will not spoil, is indeed heartbreaking — and includes some of the finest acting you’re likely to see.

Sciamma is best known for a trilogy of alternative coming-of-age films, Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011), and Girlhood (2014). Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a natural next move. As she told IndieWire, “My work has always been about not being conventional and male gaze is convention. It’s not just because I’m a woman behind a camera, because women can actually reproduce male gaze, because that’s our education. I think my movies are very much about the female gaze . . . . But it’s not going to happen magically if you’re a woman. It’s still something you have to deconstruct.”




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