Desire – a combustion. A woman’s black frock sears ablaze. Amidst the rising cacophony of a bonfire choir, she stares to meet the gaze of a young painter. The night divulges its golden complexions, flushing upwards and betraying a hidden secret like a painting by Rembrandt. It’s a gaze that provokes the other to look closer, to dare to paint the intensity of its blaze.
This is the image that haunts revered French auteur Céline Sciamma’s scorching period romance. An immensely textured work, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a revolutionary feature that explores love through the politics of representation and the all-consuming power of the gaze. Set on an isolated coast in 18th Century Brittany, it depicts a slow but brimming romance between a young painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and her unwilling subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Marianne’s arrival marks her commission to capture Héloïse through a portrait painting that would be used to sell her as a marital prospect after Héloïse exhausted a previous male painter by refusing to pose. Under the guise of a walking companion, Marianne observes Héloïse through a series of intense and intimate glances that would eventually be met with a tender reciprocation.
Sciamma’s film is all about the gaze. Despite the absence of men, their power upon the formulation of female identities and behaviour remains an ever pervasive and looming presence. Here, John Berger’s famous maxim “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” rings a sombre truth. There is a restraint of desire enacted out by the protagonists themselves, as if they were their own voyeurs, even when they’re away from the bustle of wider society. However, Sciamma isn’t as interested in how people constrain themselves as much as how they set each other free. “Is this how you see me?” Héloïse rebuffs at Marianne’s first attempt at her portrait, forcing the painter to unravel herself from patriarchal artistic strictures and a suppression of desire that have resulted in a portrait so guarded that it lacks any presence.
Interestingly, this concept can also be explored in the production of the film. When thinking of recently acclaimed lesbian cinema, it’s been noted that most, if not all, have been directed by men. Portrait marks the first film directed by, and starring, a (queer) woman which has won the Queer Palm, as well as bagging a Best Screenplay and nomination for the Palme d’Or (out of only four female directors). Through the use of a mostly female crew, Sciamma redefines the male gaze that has been looming over the shadows of cinema, retraining it through an authentic narrative that demands for an increase in visibility and acknowledgement.
At the heart of Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s cinematic manifesto is a desire to destroy the idea of “The Muse”, a concept that diminishes the participation of women in art history. To Sciamma, the muse fetishizes, silence and objectifies a woman to the point where she’s “inspiring only because she’s beautiful”. The film subverts the artist/subject dynamic born from a male artist’s point of view, commonly depicted in works such as Vertigo or Titanic. Posed is the question of who actually determines a painting – is it the painter, the beloved subject, or the relation that is kindled between them by the act of connection? Explored is a love and creation dialogue imbued with equality; art is presented not as a vertical line between the artist and the idea. Just like in its technicalities, it is created through layers of co-creation between the artist and the subject. Héloïse determines how she wants to be portrayed, and her relationship with Marianne influences that portrayal. As asserted by Héloïse “We are in the exact same place”.
Amongst its most haunting projections, each frame bearing a visual resemblance to the works of Vermeer, Friedrich, and even Bergman, the film’s most harrowing moment comes from its reflection on the tragic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
A discussion around the dinner table has the characters pondering over what motivated Orpheus to look back, knowing that in doing so his lover would die a second death. Héloïse stirs an understanding that poignantly foreshadows her own end; she thinks that Eurydice has selfishly whispered for her lover to turn around, so that what remains is only the frozen permanence of love at the height of its intensity. Like that of a painting unvanquished by the cruelty of time, to exist only in a lover’s memory is to always remain at her most beautiful and perfect.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire brings the subtle simmers of love and its moments of desire into an incandescent end of a wild cascade. It is about regret as much as it is about remembrance. About the difference between possessing something, and treasuring it. And like a painting that’s never truly finished, perhaps what are most beautiful are not the images that women project, but rather the ones they leave behind.