Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film that is commonly regarded as Céline Sciammas tour de force of the female gaze. The film follows Marianne who is sent to paint the portrait of Heloise, a soon-to-be bride and stubborn woman who has never allowed anyone to complete such a painting of her before. What begins as a mere job for Marianne unravels into something profound as the intimacy between the two women increases with time spent together. Despite this being a tale of queer love, and despite the almost complete absence of men in this film, there is an underlying tension between the romance and the fact that this is a period piece. In 1770’s France the patriarchy ran rampant and men were in an utmost position of control. As such, the question this paper seeks to explore is how does Sciamma’s use of the female gaze in Portrait of a Lady on Fire compare to that of the male gaze, and how does she both succeed and fail in her endeavor? Situating this study within the context of gaze theory, this paper will specifically analyze three aspects of the film. The first will be exploring how the portrait of Heloise is the physical representation of the female gaze. The second will be how the film accomplishes a dismantling of gender roles within a queer space; this will be contrasted with the limitations of the film, more specifically the confines of a period piece. The final will be an analysis of the Orpheus and Eurydice scene in the film and the cinematic methods that Sciamma uses to portray female collaboration.
The Portrait Alongside a Collaborative Gaze
The female gaze becomes manifest in this film because of the inherent attention to detail that comes with it. Women often seek to observe before any other action is taken; Marianne simply watches Heloise during her first few nights on the island, not venturing to communicate just yet. Before the two have even spoken, Marianne begins to craft the portrait. A central element of the film is its use of hands to convey both the female gaze and the unfolding of a story. “Along with making art, hands exist to create a sexual and intimate act” and they also “involve a conception of a new experience along with the…frightening abandonment of innocence” (Hedley & Merchant-Knudsen 4). A great amount of screen time is spent on hands, especially the brushstrokes that Marianne makes in her process of creation. She constantly starts over in her efforts, not resting until she crafts a portrait that reveals Heloise in her authenticity. As the two women begin to get closer, the painting becomes easier to complete.
Since this is a film about two women who fall in love with one another, it is important to recognize that the female gaze is amplified two-fold. This is what is known as the “collaborative gaze” and is affirmed through how Marianne and Heloise work together to create the portrait that also ultimately creates their intimacy (Hedley & Merchant-Knudsen 5). In one specific scene where Heloise is posing for Marianne, this collaborative gaze is demonstrated as they discuss their observations of one another. Marianne states “When you’re moved, you do this with your hand” and mimics a gesture often done by Heloise (Portrait 1:04:05). This is representative of how perceptive the female gaze is and again ventures to explicitly mention hands as a conveyance of emotion. After this, Marianne exclaims how she would hate to be in Heloise’s place, being painted with every inch of her being paid close attention to. Heloise responds with “We’re in the same place,” thereby affirming that she is gazing at Marianne in the exact same way (Portrait 1:04:38).
The female gaze is further amplified through Sciamma’s lens as director. The very cinematography of this film seems to be at the hands of the two lovers as the camera “dwells beside (Marianne and Heloise) like a friend watching, like how (they) watch each other…never suffocating or encroaching” (Hedley & Merchant-Knudsen 5). The unraveling of affection between the two women is a very slow burn, perhaps due to fear of the unknown or a worry that intimacy will not be returned. Nevertheless, it is almost as if the camera itself is following along on this passionate journey, just as excited as the audience to see what will unfold. The longer duration before any physical intimacy occurs also speaks to the prioritization of emotion in this film; the notions of fear and discovery that precede further exploration.
Queer Space in a Period Piece
A space for heteronormativity is non-existent because it is everywhere. Queer space, on the other hand, is something that individuals must create for themselves; it is a place given to silent acknowledgement and acceptance of one’s identity often in relation to another with a similar identity. Queer space is “…usually invisible. It is altogether more ambivalent, open, leaky, self-critical…” (Pelling). Céline Sciamma creates this space in her film through the comfortability and trust that develops between Marianne and Heloise. There is never a spoken word said about such a space, rather it is an expanse that unravels, a silent awakening of sorts, that those involved in “…never have to question or come to terms with” (Pelling).
In order for this space to successfully exist there is the necessity for a dismantling of gender roles and a desire to defeat the male gaze through authentic expressions of the feminine. One example of this is found when Marianne realizes she was falling into the male role that dominates its subject. She eventually stops attempting to paint Heloise in secret, even going so far as to throw the portrait into the fire as a representation of burning and breaking down the masculine. As such, Marianne is “…unable to perform successfully until Heloise becomes actively involved” (Hedley & Merchant-Knudsen 3). By doing this, Marianne invites Heloise to share in the creation of both their collaborative queer space and the creation of the physical portrait.
Despite the film’s success in creating a safe space for queer love to flourish, there is the undeniable knowledge that this film is a period piece. This is strongly felt when the film comes to an end and the audience watches Heloise leave to marry a man. This points to the idea that despite the absence of masculinity in this film, the pressures of societal expectation are still felt even on the borders of a seemingly safe space. There is a statement about the two gazes that reads: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” (Esposito). This says a great deal about the relationship portrayed in this film and how it differs from heteronormative conventions. The two lovers are both women, and as such are able to simultaneously look inward at themselves and at one another. They will walk away from the experience knowing that even if it was only for a brief moment, they were both seen wholly and completely. Comparatively, the male gaze is one that lacks introspection and instead seeks ownership and dominance. Where the male gaze exudes hostility, the female instead chooses liberation and expression. An example of this is seen when Heloise cannot stop smiling as Marianne attempts to paint her. In the “patriarchal world” where Heloise is fated to return to, a smiling woman is shunned as opposed to a “stern, inexpressive one” (Esposito). In other words, the male gaze favours a woman who is complacent and represses her emotions, meanwhile the female advocates for the exact opposite.
The Foreshadowing of the Myth
There is a scene in this film that marks a pivotal moment in the narrative. It is when Marianne, Heloise and Sophie are sitting around a table reading and discussing the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Firstly, this scene is extremely significant in relation to Sciamma’s cinematography as it depicts a collaboration between multiple versions of the female gaze. The audience is privy to what is clearly an intimate moment where knowledge is being shared, where women are working together (both on and off screen, considering Sciamma) to craft a story that “defies…heterosexist depictions of lesbian sexuality…that oscillate between fetishization or total erasure” (Fox). In other words, the central narrative of a lesbian relationship is juxtaposed with demonstrations of female intelligence through a philosophical dialectic of sorts. The film beautifully balances depictions of both sexual and emotional intimacy. Each woman sitting around the table has her own screen time whilst sharing her opinions regarding the myth, and in so doing Sciamma opens up a space where these two elements can co-exist.
The foreshadowing of this scene comes from a discussion about who was at fault when Orpheus turned around on his descent out of Hell and in so doing, lost Eurydice forever. The ending scene of the film shows Marianne watching Heloise at the orchestra, years after they have departed and Heloise has been married off. Heloise is seemingly enraptured by the music as she begins to sob uncontrollably. There is a sense that she is aware that Marianne is watching her, yet she never turns around once. In the myth scene, Marianne says that Orpheus “…chooses the memory of her. That’s why he turns” (Portrait 1:13:39). In the final scene the audience witnesses a reversal of Marianne’s theory regarding the myth. Heloise can be deemed Orpheus, choosing instead to live with the memory of their love than to face the reality of her present. It is almost as if she can no longer face the female gaze after being conditioned to adhere to the male gaze for so long now. Marianne is Eurydice in this scene, and perhaps the reason Heloise will not look at her is because if she does so “…(she) will lose her again, and it will be by virtue of (her) own gaze…she will…be apprehensible only as loss” (Pelling). The triumph of the female gaze ultimately becomes equal to defeat when regarded from this perspective. The same look that began it all, the same desire to see someone for everything that they are, wholly and completely, is also capable of bringing destruction and pain. Another way of describing it is to say “…the gaze by which she is apprehended is also the gaze in which she is banished” (Pelling). Once again, the overwhelming power of the gaze is undeniably felt during these moments as Marianne sits there hoping beyond hope that Heloise will simply acknowledge her; a female silently crying out to the unreceptive male gaze, trying to accept that she is no longer seen anymore.
Overall, Céline Sciamma’s use of the female gaze in Portrait of a Lady on Fire effectively stands out in comparison to that of the male gaze. Oftentimes the male gaze is one characterized entirely by seeing; the woman is objectified in the eyes of the man. Even more than this, the male does not depict a struggle with the self. Sciamma challenges this by giving her female gaze a variety of mediums through which it is expressed. For example, the gaze is visually represented by Marianne’s portrait of Heloise; in turn, the visual cannot be completed until a total intimacy is achieved. Another example is found through combined acts of vocation and touch as Marianne and Heloise slowly let one another in. Taking a step even further than this, Sciamma invites the audience to recognize her use of the collaborative gaze where both individuals in the relationship are necessary parts of an overall witnessing, an overall struggle, to see and be seen by another. This is how Sciamma succeeds in her endeavor.
Despite the great successes of this film, its failure comes from outside patriarchal influence. Its being a period piece sets this up from the very beginning; Heloise’s impending marriage echoes in the background of the entire film. The transformation of the collaborative female gaze at the end is given up in favor of the male gaze. Heloise, choosing not to bear witness to her past lover, falls into this dismissive mindset, focusing in on her current heterosexual present and refusing even to spare Marianne a glance, thus closing the queer space between the two women.
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Esposito, Veronica. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A ‘Manifesto about the Female Gaze’.” World Literature Today, vol. 95, no. 3, summer 2021, pp. 18+. Gale OneFile: CPI.Q, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A666942950/CPI?u=rpu_main&sid=summon&xid=0b8cbef1. Accessed 8 Mar. 2022.
Fox, Albertine. “Hearing the Crackles in the Background: Listening and Female Intimacy in ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Screen Queens, 14 Apr. 2020, https://screen-queens.com/2020/04/14/listening-and-female-intimacy-in-portrait-of-a-lad y-on-fire/. Accessed 8 Mar. 2022.
Hedley, Susie, and T. R. Merchant-Knudsen. “Painting a Collaborative Gaze : Tactility and the Myth in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Film International (Göteborg, Sweden), vol. 19, no. 2, 2021, pp. 194-201.
Pelling, Madeleine. “Recentring Peripheral Queerness and Marginal Art in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019).” Humanities, vol. 10, no. 2, 2021, pp. 73. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/rece ntring-peripheral-queerness-marginal-art/docview/2544490914/se-2, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/h10020073.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Directed by Céline Sciamma. Camera Film, 2019.