Portrait of a Gaze on Fire: On Sciamma's Master Artwork — Sissy Screens
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Author: Dion Kagan

Portrait of a Gaze on Fire

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Portrait of a Gaze on Fire: Review Essay

Make a cerebral lesbian period romance about the painting of a noblewoman’s portrait circa 1760, with sparse dialogue, set in a quiet château on the shores of chilly Brittany. Make it thrilling, emotional, haunting and so unspeakably sexy that audiences basically drool with arousal.

Make it deeply feminist too, but not didactic. Tell a story at once conditioned by the circumstances of late eighteenth-century noble patrimony, but have it unfold almost entirely out of patriarchy’s sight. Create a love story based on equality. And make that set-up realistic, somehow, with a conceit that hinges on noble marriage’s circulation of women as objects, but then unravels and remodels the optics of that institution.

It’s a love story about equals who construct their story together.

Make it a film almost entirely without men. Reclaim the hidden herstory of women artists, who surged and forged careers in the late eighteenth century, but whose lives and work are mainly excluded from art history.

Reinterpret the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and, while you’re at it, the myth of the fetishised female muse—the silent woman-object who inspires male creativity just because she’s there. Offer a new paradigm, in which the object of the artistic gaze looks back, scrutinising the artist and collaborating in the creation of her own image.

And do it all stylishly, unsentimentally, with restrained performances and production design. Give the lovers essentially one dress each, one ‘uniform’ per character, and eschew excessive period detail and over-adornment in preference for a visual language that is decisive and functional. (But make every shot perfectly beautiful, nonetheless). Do little more than soft diegetic noise on the soundtrack—footsteps, fires crackling, waves crashing—but for two of queer cinema’s most passionate musical interludes.

Once you’ve created this incredible love story, audiences will swoon and critics will say ‘magnifique’, this is ‘a masterpiece’. One man, during a post-screening Q&A at the New York Film Festival, will ask a slightly confusing question before saying what he wanted to say all along, which is that he has seen a lot of films and Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the best he has seen ‘in life’, setting off robust agreement and applause. This singular, unforgettable vision of emotional and physical intimacy is written and directed by French screenwriter and director, Céline Sciamma, best known for queer and gender nonconforming coming-of-age dramas Water Lillies (2007), Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014). But, as film critic Amy Taubin noted during the same Q&A, this film is about two grown-up women in love.

*

In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel play Marianne and Héloïse, an artist and an aristocrat who fall in love when the former is commissioned to paint the latter’s portrait. It’s a marriage portrait for a faraway Milanese noble, arranged by Héloïse’s Countess mother (Valeria Golino).

But Héloïse has been a recalcitrant sitter. She’s been wrenched from the convent, and is grieving the death of her sister, the woman originally betrothed to the Milanese family and who very likely took her own life to avoid the marriage. Previous (male) artists have failed to capture Héloïse’s likeness, and their aborted attempts haunt the château like gothic projections of female subjectivity in the dominion of the male gaze. And so, the Countess enlists Marianne to pose as her daughter’s ‘walking companion’ during the day, studying her features discreetly and then committing them to the canvas by night. Marianne will help flog Héloïse to the far-off nobles in exchange for land, prestige and titles.

Previous (male) artists have failed to capture Héloïse’s likeness, and their aborted attempts haunt the château like gothic projections of female subjectivity in the dominion of the male gaze.

These arrangements in place, what unfolds in Brittany actually circumvents these power relations of patrimony and patriarchy. Marianne completes, and then destroys her first attempt at the portrait when Héloïse finds out what’s afoot. “Is that how you see me?”, Héloïse asks, “Do you have my future husband in mind?”. Then, Héloïse consents to let this intense young woman try to paint her again, agreeing to sit for her. The Countess departs Brittany, and all manner of erotic and intellectual tensions ratchet up, evolving “step by step”, as the director describes it, “what it is like to fall in love, the pure present and pleasure of it… the confusion, hesitation and the romantic exchange”.

*

When we first meet Marianne, she’s posing for a group of young women who are learning to paint portraits. One of her pupils has uncovered a painting of a woman on the beach, her dress in flames, and it is the sight of this eponymous portrait of a lady on fire that sparks the artist’s remembrance of Brittany. The scene is a framing device, in several senses of that phrase, and a sneaky clue that this artist herself is to become an object of inquiry and desire. Here she is, under the scrutiny of many sets of young women’s eyes.

But she is also intrepid, a New Woman-ish figure, a working artist with no pressing need to marry, who reads books and smokes a pipe and takes commissions in far off places. Next, she’s en route to Brittany, in a rowboat, off which she dives bravely into freezing waters to rescue some canvases that have been washed overboard. The scene establishes Marianne’s boldness, but is also strongly reminiscent of Holly Hunter’s Ada in The Piano, another corseted and crinolined woman who goes overboard in chase of art’s key instruments. This may not be an intentional reference, but Jane Campion’s 1993 film is certainly a feminist period-film antecedent to Portrait—another study in sex, desire, taboo and power relations, mediated by art and the predicament of the woman artist and her body under the regimes of empire and patriarchy.

Under Héloïse’s gaze, the artist herself becomes an object of fascination. Sublime, bottlenecked tension is unleashed.

Interestingly, when Marianne arrives in Brittany, we’re shown the marriage portrait that helped traffic the Countess herself among men. Her likeness, captured by a male portraitist (Marianne’s father), testifying to her own status as a man’s decorative possession, stirs ambivalent feelings: “The portrait arrived here before I did. When I walked in, I saw myself in front of me.” However, the Countess is leaning in to this economy of exchange: a better, warmer life in Italy beckons, so Héloïse must be painted and married off.

The Countess is also the first of several figures who triangulate the intimacy that develops between Marianne and Héloïse. Other such figures include the previous male portraitists, the unseen Milanese betrothed, and the patrimonial system itself, which mediates all the artists’ gazes. The most important of these triangulators, though, is the resident servant at the château, Sophie, who becomes a more fulsomely fleshed out character when the Countess leaves. This is when hierarchies break down entirely: Héloïse, Marianne and Sophie refashion the household into a place of sorority and solidarity, intellectual and domestic exchange. “This kind of utopia is possible, cinema can make it happen”, Sciamma says. Collectively, the trio address the matter of Sophie’s unwanted pregnancy. Héloïse and Marianne accompany her to an abortion, which they bear witness to, and in an act of chronicling women’s history through art, Marianne sketches an image of it. In this part of the film, the director explains, “their bodies become their own when they are allowed to relax, when vigilance wanes, when there is no longer the gaze of protocol, when they are alone. I wanted to return their friendships and questions to them, their attitudes, their humour, their desire to run.”

Throughout, the gaze remains at the forefront, and there is a legendary turning point where it becomes clear that while Marianne, the artist, has been studying the face and body of Héloïse, Héloïse has also been looking at Marianne. “When you don’t know what to say, you touch your forehead. When you lose control, you raise your eyebrows. And when you’re troubled, you breathe through your mouth.” Under Héloïse’s gaze, the artist herself becomes an object of fascination. Sublime, bottlenecked tension is unleashed.

Portrait also equates the act of paying close interest in someone—studying them—with the process of falling in love. The idea that intimacy and love are the function of an accumulation of detail, built up through scrupulous attention.

This undoing of the direction of the gaze insists that what is traditionally understood as a passive role—the sitter, the muse, the one looked-at—can in fact be an active, agential one. All the while, Héloïse has been carefully examining and appreciating; cultivating, in a manner of speaking, a view from the bottom. (Not topping from the bottom, it should be noted, which would imply a straightforward reversal of power). In this looking back, the sitter, object, becomes the artistic collaborator, co-creator of the artwork, and of the narrative. In the final ‘look at me’ command she issues to Marianne—Portrait’s re-interpreted Orpheus and Euridice moment—Héloïse compels the artist, her lover, to see her one last time, on her own terms, a subject, an equal shaper of the gaze.

*

Google ‘lesbians in corsets’ and you will get a lot of a triple x spanking and fishnets, but as any devoted Sarah Waters fan (Tipping the Velvet; Fingersmith) will tell you, there is an excellent lineage of queer storytelling across historical and period cinema. They vary in the degree of their fetishistic treatment of the trappings and fantasy possibilities of historical settings: the titillations of class etiquette and its subversion in sex; the sumptuous textures of eighteenth and nineteenth century fashions and fabrics; the breathless bodice, with its whiff of BDSM. A core impulse in some of these works is to put queers into history, and to exploit the imaginative possibilities of the past to invoke a better future. Many are also sad, untriumphant stories, of course—lonely dowager aunts, melancholy butch maidservants, willful and misunderstood young women—spoiled identities, unwanted and unhoused, trapped in patriarchal marriage plots. But this is not always negative, either: ‘unhappy archives’ can be a source of energy for queers in the present, as writers like Heather Love and Sara Ahmed suggest.

Google ‘lesbians in corsets’ and you will get a lot of a triple x spanking and fishnets, but as any devoted Sarah Waters fan will tell you, there is an excellent lineage of queer storytelling across historical and period cinema.

“I think Céline uses the period piece to be more accurate about the present,” actor Haenel says. But, “I’m not using the past to talk about today,” Sciamma maintains. “I’m trying to transmit what has not been transmitted, which is our intimacies in the past as women. To create and build memories through cinema.”

Sciamma has also talked about the collaborative working model on set: the close creative partnership with her two female not-muse leads, her regular collaborator, cinematographer Claire Mathon, and a supporting cast comprised almost entirely of women. “This collaboration is at the heart of the film, which puts an end to the concept of the ‘muse’”, she says, “to recount the creative relationship between the viewer and the viewed in a new way. In our studio, there is no muse: there are just two collaborators who inspire each other”. Merlant, who plays Marianne, describes this too: “On set, and even at the audition,” she says, “I had this sensation like Céline was really creating this environment of kindness and collaboration, this horizontal gaze between all of us. And, as an actor, we were not just objects, we were a part of this creation… [given] a space to express and to propose things.”

An aside, which I think is more than just gossip: Haenel and Sciamma were lovers after first meeting on the set of Water Lillies. Their real-life relationship adds further meaning to Portrait, a love story summoned up in memory, or as Sciamma describes it, a “story of the echo of a love affair, of how it lives on within us in all its scope”. If we understand this remembrance as Marianne’s, the artist’s, the one who looks, as our culture tells us she is, then it could be tempting to read Portrait as a film about the writer-director’s lost relationship: another kind of romantic muse story, with the director’s former lover as both lead and lost object; a yearning retrospective structure that has been so prevalent in narratives of queer desire (think Call Me By Your Name, and on and on).

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is something else entirely. It’s a love story about equals who construct their story together. If Héloïse moves from object to subject, becoming the co-creator of her own image, and Marianne moves from artist and admirer to object of desire, then the work of art created—and the story of the romance that surrounds that work of art—is the creation of equals.

There is a shot towards the end of the film where Marianne sketches herself in a mirror placed over Héloïse’s groin—the film’s ideas about the gaze taken to an extreme, albeit a sexy and playful, place. Sciamma explains that here, they are “really trying to harvest most of the situation of people looking at each other. She’s portraying herself with this mirror, this woman is naked, and her head is where her sex is. It’s really overt, so you don’t have to think about it. But, still, it’s this idea that’s given to you through a sensation. It should always be about this, I think.”

Believe the hype. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the thinking person’s queer feminist bodice-ripper you have been waiting for.

Portrait of a Gaze on Fire: Review Essay

Make a cerebral lesbian period romance about the painting of a noblewoman’s portrait circa 1760, with sparse dialogue, set in a quiet château on the shores of chilly Brittany. Make it thrilling, emotional, haunting and so unspeakably sexy that audiences basically drool with arousal.

Make it deeply feminist too, but not didactic. Tell a story at once conditioned by the circumstances of late eighteenth-century noble patrimony, but have it unfold almost entirely out of patriarchy’s sight. Create a love story based on equality. And make that set-up realistic, somehow, with a conceit that hinges on noble marriage’s circulation of women as objects, but then unravels and remodels the optics of that institution.

It’s a love story about equals who construct their story together.

Make it a film almost entirely without men. Reclaim the hidden herstory of women artists, who surged and forged careers in the late eighteenth century, but whose lives and work are mainly excluded from art history.

Reinterpret the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and, while you’re at it, the myth of the fetishised female muse—the silent woman-object who inspires male creativity just because she’s there. Offer a new paradigm, in which the object of the artistic gaze looks back, scrutinising the artist and collaborating in the creation of her own image.

And do it all stylishly, unsentimentally, with restrained performances and production design. Give the lovers essentially one dress each, one ‘uniform’ per character, and eschew excessive period detail and over-adornment in preference for a visual language that is decisive and functional. (But make every shot perfectly beautiful, nonetheless). Do little more than soft diegetic noise on the soundtrack—footsteps, fires crackling, waves crashing—but for two of queer cinema’s most passionate musical interludes.

Once you’ve created this incredible love story, audiences will swoon and critics will say ‘magnifique’, this is ‘a masterpiece’. One man, during a post-screening Q&A at the New York Film Festival, will ask a slightly confusing question before saying what he wanted to say all along, which is that he has seen a lot of films and Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the best he has seen ‘in life’, setting off robust agreement and applause. This singular, unforgettable vision of emotional and physical intimacy is written and directed by French screenwriter and director, Céline Sciamma, best known for queer and gender nonconforming coming-of-age dramas Water Lillies (2007), Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014). But, as film critic Amy Taubin noted during the same Q&A, this film is about two grown-up women in love.

*

In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel play Marianne and Héloïse, an artist and an aristocrat who fall in love when the former is commissioned to paint the latter’s portrait. It’s a marriage portrait for a faraway Milanese noble, arranged by Héloïse’s Countess mother (Valeria Golino).

But Héloïse has been a recalcitrant sitter. She’s been wrenched from the convent, and is grieving the death of her sister, the woman originally betrothed to the Milanese family and who very likely took her own life to avoid the marriage. Previous (male) artists have failed to capture Héloïse’s likeness, and their aborted attempts haunt the château like gothic projections of female subjectivity in the dominion of the male gaze. And so, the Countess enlists Marianne to pose as her daughter’s ‘walking companion’ during the day, studying her features discreetly and then committing them to the canvas by night. Marianne will help flog Héloïse to the far-off nobles in exchange for land, prestige and titles.

Previous (male) artists have failed to capture Héloïse’s likeness, and their aborted attempts haunt the château like gothic projections of female subjectivity in the dominion of the male gaze.

These arrangements in place, what unfolds in Brittany actually circumvents these power relations of patrimony and patriarchy. Marianne completes, and then destroys her first attempt at the portrait when Héloïse finds out what’s afoot. “Is that how you see me?”, Héloïse asks, “Do you have my future husband in mind?”. Then, Héloïse consents to let this intense young woman try to paint her again, agreeing to sit for her. The Countess departs Brittany, and all manner of erotic and intellectual tensions ratchet up, evolving “step by step”, as the director describes it, “what it is like to fall in love, the pure present and pleasure of it… the confusion, hesitation and the romantic exchange”.

*

When we first meet Marianne, she’s posing for a group of young women who are learning to paint portraits. One of her pupils has uncovered a painting of a woman on the beach, her dress in flames, and it is the sight of this eponymous portrait of a lady on fire that sparks the artist’s remembrance of Brittany. The scene is a framing device, in several senses of that phrase, and a sneaky clue that this artist herself is to become an object of inquiry and desire. Here she is, under the scrutiny of many sets of young women’s eyes.

But she is also intrepid, a New Woman-ish figure, a working artist with no pressing need to marry, who reads books and smokes a pipe and takes commissions in far off places. Next, she’s en route to Brittany, in a rowboat, off which she dives bravely into freezing waters to rescue some canvases that have been washed overboard. The scene establishes Marianne’s boldness, but is also strongly reminiscent of Holly Hunter’s Ada in The Piano, another corseted and crinolined woman who goes overboard in chase of art’s key instruments. This may not be an intentional reference, but Jane Campion’s 1993 film is certainly a feminist period-film antecedent to Portrait—another study in sex, desire, taboo and power relations, mediated by art and the predicament of the woman artist and her body under the regimes of empire and patriarchy.

Under Héloïse’s gaze, the artist herself becomes an object of fascination. Sublime, bottlenecked tension is unleashed.

Interestingly, when Marianne arrives in Brittany, we’re shown the marriage portrait that helped traffic the Countess herself among men. Her likeness, captured by a male portraitist (Marianne’s father), testifying to her own status as a man’s decorative possession, stirs ambivalent feelings: “The portrait arrived here before I did. When I walked in, I saw myself in front of me.” However, the Countess is leaning in to this economy of exchange: a better, warmer life in Italy beckons, so Héloïse must be painted and married off.

The Countess is also the first of several figures who triangulate the intimacy that develops between Marianne and Héloïse. Other such figures include the previous male portraitists, the unseen Milanese betrothed, and the patrimonial system itself, which mediates all the artists’ gazes. The most important of these triangulators, though, is the resident servant at the château, Sophie, who becomes a more fulsomely fleshed out character when the Countess leaves. This is when hierarchies break down entirely: Héloïse, Marianne and Sophie refashion the household into a place of sorority and solidarity, intellectual and domestic exchange. “This kind of utopia is possible, cinema can make it happen”, Sciamma says. Collectively, the trio address the matter of Sophie’s unwanted pregnancy. Héloïse and Marianne accompany her to an abortion, which they bear witness to, and in an act of chronicling women’s history through art, Marianne sketches an image of it. In this part of the film, the director explains, “their bodies become their own when they are allowed to relax, when vigilance wanes, when there is no longer the gaze of protocol, when they are alone. I wanted to return their friendships and questions to them, their attitudes, their humour, their desire to run.”

Throughout, the gaze remains at the forefront, and there is a legendary turning point where it becomes clear that while Marianne, the artist, has been studying the face and body of Héloïse, Héloïse has also been looking at Marianne. “When you don’t know what to say, you touch your forehead. When you lose control, you raise your eyebrows. And when you’re troubled, you breathe through your mouth.” Under Héloïse’s gaze, the artist herself becomes an object of fascination. Sublime, bottlenecked tension is unleashed.

Portrait also equates the act of paying close interest in someone—studying them—with the process of falling in love. The idea that intimacy and love are the function of an accumulation of detail, built up through scrupulous attention.

This undoing of the direction of the gaze insists that what is traditionally understood as a passive role—the sitter, the muse, the one looked-at—can in fact be an active, agential one. All the while, Héloïse has been carefully examining and appreciating; cultivating, in a manner of speaking, a view from the bottom. (Not topping from the bottom, it should be noted, which would imply a straightforward reversal of power). In this looking back, the sitter, object, becomes the artistic collaborator, co-creator of the artwork, and of the narrative. In the final ‘look at me’ command she issues to Marianne—Portrait’s re-interpreted Orpheus and Euridice moment—Héloïse compels the artist, her lover, to see her one last time, on her own terms, a subject, an equal shaper of the gaze.

*

Google ‘lesbians in corsets’ and you will get a lot of a triple x spanking and fishnets, but as any devoted Sarah Waters fan (Tipping the Velvet; Fingersmith) will tell you, there is an excellent lineage of queer storytelling across historical and period cinema. They vary in the degree of their fetishistic treatment of the trappings and fantasy possibilities of historical settings: the titillations of class etiquette and its subversion in sex; the sumptuous textures of eighteenth and nineteenth century fashions and fabrics; the breathless bodice, with its whiff of BDSM. A core impulse in some of these works is to put queers into history, and to exploit the imaginative possibilities of the past to invoke a better future. Many are also sad, untriumphant stories, of course—lonely dowager aunts, melancholy butch maidservants, willful and misunderstood young women—spoiled identities, unwanted and unhoused, trapped in patriarchal marriage plots. But this is not always negative, either: ‘unhappy archives’ can be a source of energy for queers in the present, as writers like Heather Love and Sara Ahmed suggest.

Google ‘lesbians in corsets’ and you will get a lot of a triple x spanking and fishnets, but as any devoted Sarah Waters fan will tell you, there is an excellent lineage of queer storytelling across historical and period cinema.

“I think Céline uses the period piece to be more accurate about the present,” actor Haenel says. But, “I’m not using the past to talk about today,” Sciamma maintains. “I’m trying to transmit what has not been transmitted, which is our intimacies in the past as women. To create and build memories through cinema.”

Sciamma has also talked about the collaborative working model on set: the close creative partnership with her two female not-muse leads, her regular collaborator, cinematographer Claire Mathon, and a supporting cast comprised almost entirely of women. “This collaboration is at the heart of the film, which puts an end to the concept of the ‘muse’”, she says, “to recount the creative relationship between the viewer and the viewed in a new way. In our studio, there is no muse: there are just two collaborators who inspire each other”. Merlant, who plays Marianne, describes this too: “On set, and even at the audition,” she says, “I had this sensation like Céline was really creating this environment of kindness and collaboration, this horizontal gaze between all of us. And, as an actor, we were not just objects, we were a part of this creation… [given] a space to express and to propose things.”

An aside, which I think is more than just gossip: Haenel and Sciamma were lovers after first meeting on the set of Water Lillies. Their real-life relationship adds further meaning to Portrait, a love story summoned up in memory, or as Sciamma describes it, a “story of the echo of a love affair, of how it lives on within us in all its scope”. If we understand this remembrance as Marianne’s, the artist’s, the one who looks, as our culture tells us she is, then it could be tempting to read Portrait as a film about the writer-director’s lost relationship: another kind of romantic muse story, with the director’s former lover as both lead and lost object; a yearning retrospective structure that has been so prevalent in narratives of queer desire (think Call Me By Your Name, and on and on).

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is something else entirely. It’s a love story about equals who construct their story together. If Héloïse moves from object to subject, becoming the co-creator of her own image, and Marianne moves from artist and admirer to object of desire, then the work of art created—and the story of the romance that surrounds that work of art—is the creation of equals.

There is a shot towards the end of the film where Marianne sketches herself in a mirror placed over Héloïse’s groin—the film’s ideas about the gaze taken to an extreme, albeit a sexy and playful, place. Sciamma explains that here, they are “really trying to harvest most of the situation of people looking at each other. She’s portraying herself with this mirror, this woman is naked, and her head is where her sex is. It’s really overt, so you don’t have to think about it. But, still, it’s this idea that’s given to you through a sensation. It should always be about this, I think.”

Believe the hype. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the thinking person’s queer feminist bodice-ripper you have been waiting for.

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