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A Review of A Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma’s eighteenth century tale of burning desire seeks to re-centre the female gaze and turn the artist/muse dynamic on its head

Illustration by Grace Han

I had been awaiting the UK release of Céline Sciamma’s new film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, for months. Not only as an admirer of Sciamma and Adèle Haenel (who plays the titular ‘lady on fire’), but also after having heard the premise and seen the trailer I felt that it was urgent and necessary that I see this film. And so, despite Friday 28th February being a wildly inconvenient day for me to take a trip to the cinema, I listened to my instincts and bought my ticket to the first UK screening.

Set in eighteenth century Brittany, the film tells the tale of a female aristocrat, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) who refuses to have her portrait painted as she refuses the arranged marriage that the portrait will help facilitate, as was customary at the time—a painted portrait would be sent over to a prospective husband for him to sign his approval (essentially an elaborate swipe right option reserved only for men). The portrait would then, presumably, hang in the future house, serving as a constant reminder of the sitter’s status as a possession.

Following the failed attempts of a previous artist, Héloïse’s mother (Valeria Golino) arranges for Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to secretly paint her daughter’s portrait by posing as her walking companion. The resulting film is one where observer becomes observed and author becomes authored as the two women end up falling in love and working together to produce the painting.

The film’s formal elements alone warrant ample discussion. Sciamma cites Stanley Kubrick’s rope lighting methods, used in his 1975 masterpiece Barry Lyndon, as inspiration. The painterly beauty of Kubrick’s film is echoed in Portrait of a Lady on Fire where the attention to composition, lighting and colour (thanks to the talent of cinematographer Claire Mathon) grants every individual shot the possibility of existing as a painting in its own right. The exclusive use of candles, fire, or the sun as light sources is testament to the film’s authenticity in staying true to the time period it claims to portray.

Discussing how she came up with the film, Sciamma states that it was her discovery of many female artists, in eighteenth century France in particular, who, despite limitations placed on them, had nevertheless succeeded in making work. Dismayed at history’s failure to tell their story, Sciamma rights this wrong by creating her own story that speaks for them all (for which she deservedly won best screenplay at Cannes last year). By treating these eighteenth century women with the same respect and nuance as she would more modern subjects (such as those in her 2014 film Girlhood— an exploration of adolescence, race and gender in the projects of Paris) she rejects the cliched portrayals of women in period dramas. Instead, Sciamma has them energetically debate Greek myths, have periods, drink, smoke, get high, deal with unwanted pregnancies and everything in between.

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (the one where Orpheus is only able to get his deceased wife, Eurydice back from the underworld so long as he doesn’t turn back to look at her on their ascent into the world of the living, but, unable to resist, he turns and looks and she plummets to her death) is a crucial component in the film. One evening Marianne, Héloïse and Sophie (the maid played by Luàna Bajrami, befriended by the aristocrat and artist) all disagree over the myth. Sophie’s reaction of utter horror and anger at Orpheus turning to look resulting in Eurydice falling back into the abyss suggests she interprets the story as exposing the possessive logic of the male gaze where the man is the active looker whilst the woman remains passive and to be looked at. The film certainly critiques the male gaze as neutral, hoping to de-centre it and propose a plausible alternative. Sciamma herself describes the film as ‘a manifesto about the female gaze’.

Indeed, at every turn, Sciamma’s film subverts the male perspective in favour of different ways of looking. The act of close observation is ingrained into the narrative of the film where Marianne initially observes Héloïse’s features in secret, in order to paint them from memory in the evenings. The camera withholds Héloïse’s face; at first she is only filmed from behind, the back of her neck and wisps of her hair becoming points of intrigue.

These intimate, sensitive shots reminded me of a short film I saw by the British artist Carey Young. Filmed inside Palais de Justice in Brussels, Young turns her camera to the female judges and lawyers of Belgium’s courts. Filming from a distance meant she needed an impressive camera lens to capture details. As the camera zooms in on the backs of these women’s heads, revealing every individual strand of hair, one can’t help but notice that the person behind the camera is probably a woman.

Just as Young chose to only film the women of the law courts, Sciamma likewise only focuses on women in the film. When asked whether she intended to imagine a utopia of only women for the film, Sciamma replied, ‘I know about an all-women world. It’s not a utopia. It’s part of my life.’

This was precisely the same response given by the late filmmaker Chantal Ackerman when interviewed for her 1976 film Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. The film depicts the repetitive routine of a single mother who carries out domestic chores and sex work with the same monotony; it has since been praised as the moment a women’s cinema was born. Ackerman said the idea came easily to her, proclaiming ‘I myself lived in a women’s world’. Her refusal to be labelled a feminist filmmaker is testament in part to the normality of the story told. Though Sciamma certainly wouldn’t refuse such a label—and so the two differ in that respect—the end result, of putting women on the screen as they exist in the world, is the same.

It was Ackerman’s friend, the film theorist Laura Mulvey, who first coined the term ‘the male gaze’ in her seminal 1975 essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. Experiencing a newfound irritation at the representation of women in mainstream cinema, Mulvey felt compelled to express her inability to feel immersed in the stories presented to her on screen. This failure resulted from the tendency to present female characters only ever as bearers of meaning and never makers of meaning. They were passive and pretty, to be looked at by both the men in the film narrative and the spectator watching. It was only the male characters who propelled the story forwards as decisive subjects, whilst women were little more than silent objects.

Although Mulvey stresses the importance of reading her essay as rooted in its time (the women’s liberation movement of the 70s, which perhaps explains Ackerman’s refusal of the feminist label) I have certainly experienced the same irritation myself. A surprising number of mainstream films today are still perpetuating ideas of man as active and woman as passive. The Irishman, Slumdog Millionaire, The Avengers, Avatar, The Big Short (to name but a few) all fail what is called the Bechdel test. Devised by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, a film passes the test if there are two named female characters conversing with one another about anything other than a man. The irritating thing about most blockbuster hits still presenting women as mute things to be looked at by heterosexual men is that life isn’t like that. In fact, the last of the films mentioned, The Big Short, glaringly omits Meredith Whitney, a crucial figure in the run-up to the 2008 crisis. If the film is claiming to educate us on the financial crisis in a fun way (isn’t that the point of Margot Robbie explaining collateralized debt obligations to us from a bathtub?) it’s not so fun that it quite literally erases one crucial woman from history in this supposedly informative blockbuster hit.

Far from erasing anything from history, Sciamma grants the female artists of the eighteenth century—and the queer romances that existed then too—their rightful place on the big screen.

She also debunks the myth of painter as all powerful creator and sitter as passive object, criticising the concept of the muse that has sidelined so many women artists throughout history (Camille Claudel, Lee Krasner, Dora Maar—the list goes on) into objects whose value comes only from their relationship to the respective male artist. The first portrait Marianne paints she destroys, following Heloïse’s disapproval of it. ‘I didn’t know you were an art critic,’ Marianne says, hurt by Heloïse’s judgment. ‘I didn’t know you were a painter,’ Heloïse barks back. Over the course of the film, Héloïse’s input is proven indispensable to the creative process.

This co-authorship also extends to the love that grows between the two women. Here, erotic and artistic creation are intertwined, built from looking and being looked at in turn. Instead of presenting us with the classic dynamic founded on dominance or some kind of power imbalance, here, we are shown how a dynamic founded on equality and consent is just as sexy, if not more so. As Héloïse asks Marianne: ‘Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?’

Ultimately, the story of love Sciamma tells is an honest one. First slowly, almost frustratingly slowly, as the film trembles with passionate anticipation. The bit we rarely see, the bit before being in love, becomes the spectacle. The subtleties of the two women carefully watching one another, patiently restraining, conjures something far more real and subjects the spectator to those feelings too. As Sciamma sagely describes: ’It’s how we feel when we fall in love—we patiently hope that it’s mutual, that it’s building patiently. But inside we are so impatient.’

The total absence of a music score focuses the senses and heightens the restrained atmosphere. We hear every breath, footstep, fire crackle and roar of the ocean. Any occurrence of music intra-diegetically is felt all the more potently—the scene in which a group of girls gather around a fire pit and burst into song with a chorus of vocals and handclaps was perhaps the most moved I’d ever felt in a cinema. It left me overwhelmed and unsure whether to laugh or cry.

In the final scene, years after their affair, once Héloïse has likely married, Marianne sees her former lover, who is unaware of her presence, sitting alone in an opera house, and watches her as the orchestra opens with the ‘Summer’ concerto of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (1716–17)—the same section that Marianne played on the piano for Héloïse many years before. We are reminded of the debate over the myth of Orpheus—Marianne claims that Orpheus makes the poet’s choice, choosing memory, whilst Héloïse suggested that Eurydice told him to turn, just as Héloïse herself calls after Marianne at the moment of her departure: ‘turn around’, again granting both of them the power to look and be looked at.

The three-minute-long close-up shot of Héloïse, visibly moved as she watches Vivaldi play in concert, recalls the ending in showing results for Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name where Elio stares into the fire with tears in his eyes, and we’re encouraged to consider the contents of his consciousness. But Sciamma does it so much better. Here, Héloïse sits in a theatre and is herself the spectator of a show. It brings to the fore Héloïse’s remark that reverberates throughout Sciamma’s playfully literate film: ‘If you look at me, who do I look at?’

As I sat in my chair in the cinema, watching the face of Héloïse be so moved by music, I became acutely aware of my position as spectator of a film, of my own feelings, and of my own person. I left the cinema feeling as though the film had in some strange way been about me. It turned back to look at me. And, ultimately, isn’t that what all good art strives for?


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