In a world concerned with rigid dichotomies, there remains a roughhewn juxtaposition of the male gaze and the female gaze. Taking into consideration the continual lopsided proliferation of the former, these distinctions are no longer justifiably accurate on their own, and habitually favor the terminology of the heteronormative.
When we speak of the female gaze, are we concerned with how the perspective views men or women? And what about when the female gaze sexualizes the female body, and potentially engages in commodification for consumption by the same mainstream gaze? An intersectional gaze confounds and aggravates such expectations and invites, as it does in the fourth film from Celine Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, interactive participation between artist and muse.
Who’s being seen and how they’re being interpreted is the masterful through line of Sciamma’s first period piece, which competed at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and picked up an award for Best Screenplay and the Queer Palm (and later a Golden Globe and BAFTA nod for Best Foreign Language Film). As masterful as it is subdued, it’s a major international breakthrough for the talented director, whose previous three films (Water Lilies; Tomboy; Girlhood) have built on complex portraits of femininity, sexuality and sexual expression through a queer lens which subverts the usual expectations of resilience by growth and experience rather than trauma.
On an isolated island off the coast of Brittany in the late eighteenth century, Marianna (Noemie Merlant) is hired to paint the portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel). Quickly, we learn upon her first meeting with Heloise’s mother, the blunt but warm Countess (Valeria Golino), Marianna’s subject is unaware of the commission and must instead pose as her companion so she may have leave to perambulate around on the island with a chaperone. Heloise, who until recently was living in a Benedictine convent, now must be forced to undergo an arranged marriage to a Milanese man and take the place of her older sister, who jumped off a cliff while walking with the maid (Luana Bajrami).
After Heloise refused to pose for the last artist, a man who left without completing the portrait, the Countess dispatched Marianne, who happens to be the daughter of the man who painted her own marriage portrait for the union which took her away from Milan to the remote French hamlet she seemingly disdains. Through her children, she has managed to secure a future which will also restore her to the life she had been forced to abandon. As Marianna wins the trust of the introverted Heloise, the two women find they share a growing attraction to one another.
Sciamma plays with layers of self-reflexivity and subtext. We’re removed from the subjects of any particular film because it has been designed and calibrated by the artistry of its maker(s), and culturally we’ve come to accept certain flourishes and aesthetics as a normal, acceptable reflection/codification of the world.
Sciamma, whose Portrait is an engaging template with which to compare any number of cinematic lesbian representations (Kechiche’s 2013 Blue is the Warmest Color certainly comes to mind), suggests the need for greater innovation to shift cultural complicity, which is perhaps why the importance of returning to the late eighteenth century suggests the necessary work of, rather than revisionism, recuperation of lost narratives erased by the heteronormative.
Portrait begins as a framed narrative of Marianne’s (an appropriately reserved and brooding Noemie Merlant) past, wherein she remembers her love for Heloise. Now teaching painting to a class of young women, she’s triggered by her titular painting of Heloise, skirts ablaze in a moment which will find itself not only recreated but doubled by Marianne’s burning of a false, incomplete portrait of Heloise by a male painter.
Switching to Marianne’s arrival on the desolate island, Sciamma recalls Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), as concerns another woman scuttled off in an arranged marriage only to experience an unexpected romance while also defining herself, and finding her voice, through her creativity. And then, the arrival at the palatial estate of Valeria Golino (whose handful of scenes are pregnant with coded meaning) suggests the Bronte sisters or even Poe, with Marianne posed in the typically masculine role as the protagonist who arrives to transform an eventual object of desire.
Doubling is paramount to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which enhances the sense of balance and equality between Heloise and Marianne (which can further be used to triangulate with Sciamma herself, whose relationship with Haenel began after meeting on her 2007 debut Water Lilies). Color becomes important, the dresses of both women both defining their aura but also complementing one another. If Sciamma makes pointed and repeated use of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, it ends up being a poignant metaphor for oppressed love, as well as a universal subtext of tragic romance ruined by, of all things, a seemingly foolish and banal error which suggests a myriad of more complex interpretation.
The queering of the Orpheus narrative remains a fruitful exploration, seeing as how Eurydice’s rescue from Hades resonates with a group of humans whose relationships have been actively disparaged and demeaned for centuries. From Cocteau’s early takes on Orpheus to Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015), queer characters are held back by memories of love ruined by circumstance. As Sciamma so eloquently interprets, Orpheus made the poet’s choice, and by turning around to view Eurydice and thereby lose her forever, chose her memory. In the touching doubling of this, Marianne is called upon by Heloise to do just that, and the object of her lover in a wedding dress becomes seared into her memory, immediately minted in the moment as a gothic phantom of her own romantic history.
Fittingly, if perhaps uncomfortably, Sciamma invites us to gaze upon Heloise alone at the opera in the film’s extended long shot of Haenel’s face, reacting to Vivaldi through tears and laughter. It’s a moment which recalls a similar close-up of Nicole Kidman in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2004), an invitation to witness an intimacy of emotional vulnerability often neglected.
Criterion releases the Neon-owned title in 1.85:1 with 5.1 Surround, and the new 4K digital master retains the painterly frames of Claire Mathon (Atlantics, 2019; Stranger By the Lake, 2013). For extra features, the disc includes a new conversation between Celine Sciamma and film critic Dana Stevens, new interviews with Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel, an interview with cinematographer Claire Mathon from the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, as well as am interview from 2019 with artist Helene Delmaire, who created the portraits for the film.
Film Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆