The female gaze transfigures tragic romance in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

When Oscar nominations are announced, much of the buzz that follows inevitably centers on the worthy names that were inexplicably overlooked. This year, the primary focus of indignation was the absence of women in the Best Director category. Many film pundits would have swapped in Greta Gerwig (Little Women) and Lulu Wang (The Farewell) for some of the nominated male directors in a heartbeat, and there were other names worthy of consideration as well.

While the Academy is slow at times to catch up with social and cultural trends, female directors doggedly persist in worming their way into the business against all obstacles, and their visions are subtly-but-inexorably reshaping audiences’ way of seeing. We’re beginning to recognize the Male Gaze, to name it and to push back. A sea-change is happening in the way that women are depicted on the big screen, and I’m so here for it.

At film schools in years to come, the movie used to show students exactly when and how this particular aesthetic page was turned will be, I predict without hesitation, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Céline Sciamma (Girlhood, Tomboy, Water Lilies). Though it hit the festival circuit early enough to qualify, Portrait got no Oscar nominations at all; the French Ministry of Culture submitted Les Misérables instead. Had the film received wider distribution before the end of 2019, there would likely have been howls of protest over its exclusion – from a variety of categories, including cinematography, acting and screenplay as well as direction. But it’s only just beginning to hit local art cinemas now. Catch it whenever and wherever you can – on the biggest screen you can find. It’s that gorgeous.


Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. (NEON)

Sciamma set out very deliberately to make a movie that not only substitutes the female gaze for the male, but actually takes the reciprocal female gaze as its core subject. The protagonist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), is an accomplished 18th-century painter, who learned her skills from her father and exhibits her own work under his name because that’s the only way it will be considered. She is offered a commission by a countess (Valeria Golino) who was born in Milan but lives in a chateau on a lonely, dramatic, cliff-edged stretch of coastline in Brittany. The countess’ elder daughter has recently died, and the younger, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), has just been sprung from a nunnery where she had expected to spend the rest of her life. The plan is to marry Héloïse off to a Milanese gentleman, and a portrait is needed to cement the deal.

The problem is, Héloïse has gotten used to the relative equality of all-female convent life and has no interest in the arranged marriage. She simply refused to pose for the first artist brought in. Marianne is instructed to pretend to have been hired as a companion, to observe Héloïse closely and then paint her from memory. So, the two young women take long walks along the shore, trading surreptitious glances that quickly mount up to much more than a portraitist making mental measurements of the proportions of a subject’s facial features. It’s never quite clear at what point Héloïse catches onto Marianne’s subterfuge, but by then it no longer matters; they’ve developed a smoldering, forbidden mutual passion.

Considering how little dialogue is exchanged during the first half of this narrative, it may come as a surprise that Portrait of a Lady on Fire took home the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes last year. So much of this story is told in the exchange of gazes that grow progressively less tentative, more intense and challenging. And the lovers’ talk, the more freely it emerges, is fraught with challenges as well, going both ways. Eventually Marianne discards her conventional first attempt at a portrait, which fails to capture Héloïse’s rebellious spirit; then she starts over – with the subject’s consent this time. Consent matters.

Repressed desire spills forth when the countess goes away for a week to fetch home Héloïse’s suitor. Already Portrait is a movie that not only passes the Bechdel Test (two or more female characters having an extended conversation about something other than men) but notches it up a level, with zero male characters onscreen until the final act – and the delicate harmony of this all-female world feels tainted when they do show up. But when the only inhabitants of the chateau are the daughter, her portrait-painter and her maid, we are afforded a glimpse into a veritable Golden Age of Matriarchy. Particularly in the firelit nighttime scenes in the kitchen, as three women representing aristocracy, the artisan class and servants collaborate on preparing a simple rustic meal, the director and cinematographer Claire Mathon powerfully evoke not the fussy drapery and gilded bric-a-brac of the 18th-century Paris art-salon scene, but the domestic calm and plain furnishings of Dutch genre painters of a century before, notably Vermeer. It’s a world we don’t want to leave.

At the film’s midpoint, a subplot rears its head: Sophie, the maid (Luàna Bajrami), reveals an unplanned pregnancy, and her folk remedies – herbal decoctions and strenuous exercise – aren’t helping. The three women seek the counsel of the local wise woman at a Pagan bonfire festival, whose attendees raise power by clapping polyrhythms and singing an eerie canon with the Latin text “Fugere non possum” (“They come fly”), a reference to a magical salve used in shamanic practice to simulate a sensation of flying. The harmonies may raise the little hairs on the back of your neck as well. It’s here that the hem of Héloïse’s dress literally catches fire, inspiring the portrait that an older Marianne is contemplating at the outset of the film.

Witnessing Sophie’s abortion nudges the painter to expand the subjects of her work to include gritty scenes from real women’s lives, and not simply static, idealized portraits. Episodes from classical mythology – considered fit subject matter only for male artists of the day – do creep in as well, notably a fresh take on the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice that makes her gaze as vital as his in the moment of their catastrophic parting at the gates of Hades. It’s a metaphor woven throughout the film.

For a narrative in which not that much happens in the way of action, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is richly graced with layers of meaning waiting to be peeled away. It’s also, at its core, a glorious, powerfully tragic love story. For all that it’s making a point about men and women approaching art differently, it’s not at all polemical or didactic in tone, and the fact that the lovers are both women almost seems incidental to its intense romanticism – although the final scene will remind many viewers of the unhappy ending of another same-sex romance in Call Me by Your Name. Some may object on principle to the creation of yet another doomed-lesbian story, and I won’t argue that there haven’t already been too many such in which things end badly. But everyone should give it a chance to win them over. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a true work of art.