In Céline Sciamma’s unabashedly romantic and fiercely political film Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), two women fall in love and set each other free, if for only a few glorious days or weeks. It is one of the most unforgettable depictions of love foresworn, of lesbian love, of any true love, in cinema. Around the besotted lovers, the film envisions a social contract defined by a strong sense of community among women, no matter their age or class. It takes place in the late eighteenth century, but it also speaks to our own time, as many women continue to call for intersectional solidarity in their fight for equality. It is no accident that here the engine of this revolution is art. Sciamma, who grew up outside Paris and would bike into a neighboring town to go to the movies, creates a provincial world in which art—both as a technique governed by solemn tradition and a practical tool for remaking one’s world—is a part of daily life, and in which the artist’s gaze is reciprocal, not one-sided. Similarly, the film presents the act of falling in love not through the (quintessentially male, one might say) lens of conquest and possession but through one of equality between the two lovers, creating a reality in which each can truly see the other.
The preoccupations with longing and looking—who is gazing and who is returning the gaze—are not new for Sciamma, nor is the centering of a kind of character not often seen on-screen. The director’s previous three features are poignant contemporary coming-of-age stories: In Water Lilies (2007), an adolescent girl experiences her first lesbian crush. In Tomboy (2011), a young child, Laure, tests the bounds of sexuality and gender. Girlhood (2014) is the story of a teenage French-African girl who finds a way of navigating the violence and poverty of her life by joining an all-female gang. Although Sciamma’s stories often tell of yearning—and always from a queer, female point of view—the director is far from a fatalist: in her films, love paves the way to personal growth and creates a keen sense of one’s own self-worth. Like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Water Lilies and Tomboy both revolve around intense looking. And in Tomboy, Laure’s portrait being drawn is a painful reminder of just how powerful it can be to be seen by another. Another memorable moment of recognition takes place in Girlhood, when the heroine, Marieme (Karidja Touré), watches her best friends dance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” Here, the young black women claim their spots as divas, agitators, rebels, rather than people shunted off—by the education system and by the men around them—into roles of caregivers or sex workers. When the reserved Marieme turns from observer to participant and joins the dance, it is a thrilling instance of feminine jouissance: sensual, luminous, radiating warmth. This vision of joyous sisterhood returns in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma’s first period film, in which she shows us that although desire leaves us vulnerable and exposed, it also defies solitude.
The film takes place on an isolated island off the northern coast of France. A young painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), has been hired, ostensibly as a walking companion for an obdurate heiress, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Marianne’s real job, however, is to paint a bridal portrait of Héloïse without arousing the suspicion of her model, who is resisting being married off to rescue the family’s fortunes and thus refuses to pose. Héloïse has been brusquely pulled from her happy life in a Benedictine convent by her countess mother to marry a wealthy Milanese man previously engaged to her older sister, who committed suicide by jumping off a cliff. “In her last letter, she apologized,” Héloïse will say of her sister, “for leaving me her fate.” Marianne arrives on the island soaked, having dived into the water to rescue her painting supplies after the rocking boat knocked them overboard. A bit later, she sits naked by the fire at her new residence, facing her dripping canvases. In this scene, Sciamma deliciously evokes the female nude as a sexually charged subject in painting. It is intensely pleasurable to look at Marianne, but her own pleasure, in the warmth and in her tobacco, and her sense of liberty are equally striking. The moment also prefigures a metaphorical denuding. Governed by her training in portraiture, Marianne begins with rigid notions of composition, which Héloïse will come to challenge.
“In this film, the consequences of men’s authority are omnipresent, but women take the reins, and their isolation becomes a measure of their freedom.”
“It is the muse speaking up that sets off the transformation of the relationship between her and the artist into a true meeting of the minds, which can then bloom into passion.”
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