Céline Sciamma’s brilliance in “The Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a beautiful union of photographic frames, discourses on womanhood, companionship, love and the art of painting. The narrative revolves around the three female protagonists, Marianne, Héloïse and Sophie, the first a Parisian artist who has been hired to paint a portrait of Héloïse who is to be wedded to an Italian courtier, in whose house Sophie is a maid. It is the building dynamic between Marianne and Héloïse that acquires centrality to the movie, through which Sciamma orchestrates the representation of the female gaze along with the representation of lesbianism. From the duality of the artist and the object of the art, Marianne and Héloïse transcend into the unitary entity through love, companionship, and understanding. It is also through them that Sciamma explores body politics, the representation of the female body, eroticism, and sexuality. She calls her cinematic creation a “manifesto the female gaze”.
The delineation of varied discourses and dimensions through the three protagonists is a crystallization of the aspects of a woman’s life as and through different social roles and the confines of the same. Amidst these roles, a friendship is kindled. Through Marianne, we see the portrayal of an artist who has tasted freedom through travel and art, unlike Héloïse who has never seen an orchestra play, and is confined to the fate of her sister, who fell or as Sophie says jumped off a cliff near their house to escape, and is meant to be wedded off to the Italian courtier. A marriage that she evidently has no interest in. The contrasting lives of the two are materialized into the conversations they have. The subtle opening of discursive debate, through the gentle introduction to the resistance present in each of their consciousness, is a deterministic factor in their characteristic worldviews.
Marianne is hired to paint a portrait of Héloïse but the latter should have no knowledge of it, for she has been particularly stubborn in her refusal to pose for a painter in the past. Héloïse is under the impression that Marianne is her walking companion hired by her mother to make sure Héloïse does not subject herself to the same fate as her sister. It is during these walks that Sciamma will explore the beginning of the cinematic expression of the female gaze. Laura Mulvey’s essay on the visual pleasure of the cinematic representation of the female body argues that the objectification and the sexualization of the female body through photographic frames that are confined to parts of the female body is what results in voyeuristic pleasure through films. However, she states that this representation of the female body has nothing to do with her, but is another one of patriarchal constructions of female beauty and sexuality. For Mulvey, the process through which the female body is sexualized centralizes the male gaze, it is how a man views the body of a woman, for the sole purpose of the man. The erotic construction and deconstruction of the female body, through photographic stills and frames, is a product of the male gaze. This notion is subverted in the way Marianne is made to look at Héloïse. Sciamma not only represents the female gaze as the source of the consequent voyeuristic pleasure that will follow but also as the gaze of the artist, thereby opening up a dialogue about the discipline of painting in itself. It is not only through Marianne that the female gaze will come alive, but through Héloïse as well. The glances shared back and forth will build up the erotic energy between the two, the nucleus of the artists gaze will gradually intermesh with that of the lovers and the silences between the two that will emphasize their gaze on each other will leave a comment on the purpose of such a female gaze. The ever-increasing sexual intensity between Marianne and Héloïse, right from the first walk, the representation of the female body through the female gaze, that is, the focus on parts of the body that are in complete opposition to those parts that the male gaze chooses to focus on, become a subversion of the male gaze and its representation of the female body. It is the destabilization of the typically oversexualized breasts, hips, lips, legs, etc. The female gaze focuses on the hands, the ear, the smile of the object of the gaze. Through the direction of the gaze on these parts of the body, the patriarchal objectification of the female body is dismantled and the agency to eroticize parts of the body different from the norm is given to the protagonists by Sciamma. The female gaze is also used to deconstruct the female body and reconstruct it through the female gaze, which is also the gaze of the artist in this case, in stark opposition to the deconstruction of the female body through the male gaze.
The sexual intensity is not present in the otherwise normative and explicitly sexualized scripted scenes in which the characters are reduced to mere objects of pleasure and sexual gratification for each other. While the intensity is not subtle at all, there is something different: the absence of unnecessary aggression in the representation of sexuality and eroticism. The sexual energy is not merely present in the scenes that depict sex, but also in the conversations, the debates, the most simple glances towards each other, between Marianne and Héloïse. The subtlety of the representation of expressions of visual sexuality and their intensity in the movie is not equivalent to silence, hence nudity is not hypersexualized. The tone and the presence of nudity are made to become normative, or casual, its presence is subtle only in the sense that it is beyond the over-sexualization of the naked body. It is not loud and hypersexual, as the male gaze would usually have it be. The visual representation of the characters is not sensationalized with makeup and an exploration of fashion of the temporality of the movie. Instead, they are left to the simplicity of one type of costume throughout the movie, their bare faces that are allowed to made to become apparent on screen through an artistic as well as a cinematic focus on their sharp features and expressions, more than any other external apparatus for the same.
“The Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is all about subtleties. Neither does the narrative nor do the discourses present in the film need to be aggressively loud in order to be strong. The dialogue, in the ideological as well as the cinematic sense, is subtle, but it makes the presence of its argument strongly evident. The subtly of the feminist discourse is very much present in the exchanges between Marianne and Héloïse. “Equality is a pleasant feeling,” says Héloïse to Marianne as they discuss Héloïse’s marriage prospect. Marianne is a character that has the liberty to take over her father’s business and choose not to marry. The latter is a privilege that Héloïse will never have. Regardless Héloïse’s demeanor is not bitter towards her fate, she shows resistance in the way she thinks. The character has sharp critical thinking and an unfiltered way of putting it across. “Being alone is being free?” she asks Marianne, and while this may seem like the simplest of questions, it has multiple dimensions to it. It questions the very foundational aspects of relationships as societal constructs and how we understand the grand narratives of singlehood and companionship.
There is equality, but more so, an organic friendship that blooms, in the dynamic between Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophia as circumstances bring them together. The scene in which Héloïse reads from the book she borrows from Marianne opens up a discussion about the politics of the character’s decisions in the story. The three share an intellectual space like equals. When Sophie expresses the fact that she does not want a child, it is the three protagonists and their collective effort to do whatever they can to avoid it, and in the end, it is the women present together for Sophie’s abortion. The scene that captures the process of the abortion of Sophie’s child takes a dark turn when the frame is fixated on Sophie’s face, but next to her is a child, holding her hand, almost as if it is being there for Sophie through the process. The movie explores body politics through various angles: representation of the body through art, the female gaze and the potentiality of motherhood.
Art in the movie becomes a space for the expression of love, lust, and choices simultaneously for each character. It becomes the tool of paralytic nostalgia. Art allows Marianne to remember Héloïse through itself, it becomes the epitome of expression. In the end, Marianne submits a painting of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice which is clearly Héloïse’s understanding of Ovid’s story. Héloïse’s statement that maybe Eurydice asked Orpheus to turn around reverberates in the comment the man makes on the painting saying “here they seem to be saying goodbye”. Along with the expression of internal nostalgia, art also becomes that through which nostalgia is made to be felt externally. Marianne is made to remember Héloïse through her painting in the art gallery where she holds Ovid’s Orpheus and Eurydice evidently going back to the page in which Marianne drew a portrait of herself. Similarly, Héloïse is made to remember Marianne through the music of the orchestra play that she finally goes for at the end of the movie. The burst of the range of emotions that Héloïse feels is the epitome of not only narratorial but cinematic catharsis. Through art, Héloïse and Marianne are brought together. There is a togetherness in the way they argue, create, express and remember each other through art. “I didn’t know you were an art critic” says Marianne, a little hurt by Héloïse’s disappointment in her portrait, to which Héloïse sharply says “I didn’t know you were a painter”. The dialogue is as excruciating as it can get, cutting deep through the lie that was long present between Marianne and Héloïse. “No presence?” she asks Marianne as though there is an emptiness in the portrait that she cannot see, to which Marianne replies saying “your presence is made up of fleeting moments that may lack truth”. The open discussion about what the portrait lacks becomes the turning point of not only the way in which Marianne will paint another portrait of Héloïse, but also becomes a commentary on the discourse of painting a portrait. It is evident through this scene that the portrait that is created by the artist is an image of the object of art, therefore it is a representation of the object of the art through the gaze of the artist. In Héloïse’s discomfort and disappointment in the portrait, there is a presence of her refusal to accept the representation of herself that originated from a place of deceit. There is the presence of anger.
In the recreation of the abortion of Sophie’s child through art, Marianne is made to etch the choice that Sophie makes, the agency she exercised. Art becomes a tool of representation of female solidarity. It also takes the form of expression of the love and lust between Héloïse and Marianne as Marianne sketches a portrait of herself by looking into the mirror that rests on Héloïse’s pubis. In the opening scene of the film, Marianne is set in sometime after her separation from Héloïse, she is tutoring her students on how to draw a portrait and she suddenly notices that there is a painting that one of the students took out, putting it on display. Much further into the movie we are made to see the exact scene and the symbolism of the moment through which the painting of the Portrait of the Lady on Fire originated, and the significance of the moment that the Marianne and Héloïse share. Through art, through music, conversation, and togetherness even in the aftermath of separation, “The Portrait of a Lady on Fire” becomes the perfect amalgamation of pain, love, womanhood, art, and discourse. It is art that brings them Marianne and Héloïse together and it is through art that they will remain together.