By Julyan Oldham
In writer-director Céline Sciamma’s landmark lesbian film Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), set in eighteenth-century France, the young noblewoman Heloïse (Adèle Haenel, who is Sciamma’s former partner) refuses to sit for a portrait. Soon to marry an unknown Milanese man, for whom the portrait is destined, this is the only rebellion she can wage. Enter Noémie Merlant’s Marianne, an artist who is commissioned to paint Heloïse in secret while pretending to be her companion. The painter gazes at her subject with an eye that’s simultaneously professional and erotic.
This is not only a film about an artist and their muse however, as it quickly becomes clear that Marianne’s gaze is returned with equal intensity. Heloïse articulates the equivalence of their positions: “If you look at me, who do I look at?” By this time, Heloïse is watching Marianne paint and play the piano; together, they stare out at sea or into a fire; they become lovers. There is nudity in the film, but of a casual, unposed kind. Unlike most films with a lesbian subject, such as the controversial (male-directed) Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), there are no onscreen sex scenes, which means that Portrait’s central relationship is never fetishised.
This is a drastic departure from the male gaze. According to feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, women in cinema tend to be signifiers for the male other. They are not people but objects: objects upon which the male creators and viewers can impose their own desires and fantasies. The male viewer’s pleasure, usually sexual, depersonalises the woman he looks at. This has commonly been discussed in relation to film; it is difficult to talk about Hitchcock’s work, for example, without mentioning the male gaze.
By contrast, the phrase ‘female gaze’ has been used as a way to reclaim the agency of female characters. Many filmmakers have grappled with what this could look like, especially for women who desire men (Jane Campion’s work is a major example). There is undoubtedly a lot more to be said about types of gaze – in terms of other elements of identity as well as gender – and about how dynamics between the beholder(s) and the beheld operate.
In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, there are no named male characters. Male presences bookend the film but they are barely on camera for a moment, as if they don’t deserve to look at our heroines. In this way, Sciamma avoids defining the female gaze in opposition to the male. Everyone in Portrait is both object and subject, which invites empathy between the characters (and between those behind and in front of the camera). Attraction simmers in the protagonists’ shared glances, but sexuality coexists with other ways of looking. Marianne, Heloïse and Heloïse’s mother look critically at every portrait in the film, for example, while the maid, Sophie, confidently scans a field for the plant she needs.
Portrait also redefines gaze through its relationship with the classical myth of Orpheus. In the traditional story, Orpheus goes to the Underworld to reclaim his wife, Eurydice, after her untimely death. He is told that she will follow him back to the land of the living, but only if he does not look back at her before they arrive. Even knowing this, he turns, and Eurydice melts into air. This subject has recurred throughout cinema, most notably in Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Orphée, which both visually and thematically makes a fascinating double bill with Portrait. Sciamma is almost as explicit as Cocteau in her invocation of the myth – Marianne, Heloise and Sophie have a lively debate over it. The moment of turning is cast as a choice, not an inevitability;: unlike the Orpheus myth, Portrait is not at heart a tragedy. Time and again, the characters choose to turn and look – and to be looked at – regardless of the consequences. They choose to give up their watchfulness for a moment, and they are forever changed by that decision.
Portrait marks a new stage in Sciamma’s career in a few main ways: it is her least realist film (though it is by no means fantastical); it is historical; her protagonists are adults. However, watchfulness has been part of her work since the beginning. Before Portrait, Sciamma was most known for her empathetic depictions of contemporary French children as they come of age. Her debut Water Lilies (2007) observes a girls’ swimming team; Tomboy (2011) follows a gender non-conforming 10-year-old; Girlhood (2014) traces the life of Marieme (Karidja Touré), a Black teenager in a Parisian banlieue, as she becomes involved with a gang of older girls. These three films are fictional, but resemble documentaries in their closeness to each subject: the audience sees pretty much exactly what the protagonists see.
These earlier films are far from the sweeping classical romance of Portrait, but they share its watchful sensibility. Just as Marianne and Heloïse have learned to observe the people around them – for artistic detail, for desire, for threat – children like Marieme and Tomboy’s Laure/Mickael (Zoé Héran) similarly assess situations before they act.
In perhaps the best scene in Girlhood, however, Marieme gives up her watchful impersonality, her hard-won distance from others. Sciamma used the full track of Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’, and after seeing the scene, Rihanna and her team charged only a minimal fee. The sequence – and the film – would not be the same without it.
The scene begins with one girl lip-syncing ‘Diamonds’, and the camera gradually pans back to capture another. As they dance, the song becomes their own (Sciamma has called it an “anthem of sisterhood”). They’re aware of no one but each other. After a minute or so – Sciamma often lingers on moments in this way – a third girl joins the dance. The camera cuts to Marieme, the film’s main character, sitting on the hotel bed, watching. Her head nods along, but not too obviously. Her half-grin is more awe than delight; when her mouth closes, her loneliness becomes more pronounced. She’s still an outsider here. Can she join these girls? If she meets their eyes, would they gesture for her to join them? As she observes the dancers, the camera observes her. This continues for a good twenty seconds before Marieme scrambles up, and it’s a rush to see her dancing in the midst of the group for the rest of the song. Her eyes open and close, as if she’s reluctant to observe now that she can belong.
When the scene ends, the spectators might wonder if we should be watching this. Most people watching will not be young Black girls in the Parisian banlieues, and – identity aside – we are not part of that group or that moment. Have we intruded on a private intimacy? Is this uncomfortable proximity the foundation of the film’s empathy? What do our gazes bring to the film, and how are our gazes returned? Portrait does not seem to have slaked Sciamma’s thirst for such questions. Her upcoming project, Petite Maman, is the story of an eight-year-old who encounters her own mother as a child her own age. No doubt many more gazes will lock before Sciamma’s magic fades.