Portrait of a Lady on Fire: lead characters

Exploring the female gaze – review of ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

By Mary Nagle
March 26 2020, 21.25

The period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire (first released in France as Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) directed by Céline Sciamma turns the female gaze on desire through an exploration of art and control.

Marianne (Noémie Merlant) travels to a costal outpost of 18th century France to covertly paint a portrait of the young lady of the house, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Héloïse, who thought she would spend her life in the convent, is being forced into an arranged marriage. Her mother has commissioned the portrait for her prospective husband to decide whether he wants her.

Héloïse was called from the convent after her sister’s suicide of protest – an action which gives an edge to the question of self-determination in the film. The maid’s abortion around which much of the action centres, gives another perspective on female emancipation. When Héloïse asks Marianne whether she views her as complicit in her arranged marriage, it is also a challenge to the judgement of the viewer.

The films deals with political themes but avoids the trope of glorifying a female artist. It saves itself from being overly political by being weird. A frequent apparition is one of the film’s gothic elements. In a central scene (which the director refers to as “the incarnation”) cloaked women gather around a bonfire and spontaneously break into syncopated clapping and song. With a very spare soundtrack, each of the three times when music is heard, it is transformative.

Héloïse asks the more experienced Marianne what an orchestra sounds like and if she’s ever known love. They could be versions of the same question and the exceptional final scene gives an answer to both.

The transformative power of art is explored alongside that of love in the film, firstly through Marianne’s work (there was an artist on set throughout filming and the viewer is treated to closeups of live sketching and painting). The myth of Orpheus and Euridice is also part of the film’s artistic tapestry. Marianne, Héloïse and Sophie the maid sit in the candlelight earnestly giving alternative interpretations.

With men playing only the briefest cameos, Portrait is an investigation of the female gaze. The contrast with the male gaze is obvious in the film’s treatment of the female body: it focuses almost exclusively on the face. In this film about desire, nudity is brief and unexpected. When the portrait artist thoughtfully smokes a pipe by the fire the viewer is invited to think with her rather than watch her. Her body is seen but the shot makes clear that it isn’t the story.

On the other hand, Marianne, in painting for Héloïse’s prospective husband, is an emissary of the male gaze. This does not go unchecked. ‘Is that how you see me?’ Héloïse asks her on seeing Marianne’s portrayal. The ensuing conversation causes Marianne to scrap the portrait and start again. The theme of having control over how you are represented continues to be relevant.

Although the film succeeds in making art vital, its method, at times, is perhaps too subtle. The final portrait is not radically different from the first. The most original work consists in a few secret sketches. But perhaps that is the point: to show how art, especially original art by women, could be hidden from art history. Sciamma has remarked particularly on the fact that we lack artistic portrayals of abortion – a deficit she seeks to correct in the film.

It is a film which begins and ends with women watching each other. At one point Héloïse turns the mirror on Marianne exposing the artist, for once, to the simultaneously uncomfortable and flattering pressure of being seen.

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