The male gaze is a term often used to address and critique how male directors use the camera to portray the female body as a site/sight of desire. The term, coined by Laura Mulvey, has grown and changed over the decades to address shifting genres, new mediums, and the growth of female directors. But, the question then emerges, what about the female gaze? Is there such a thing if hegemonic ideas of film are governed by patriarchy? Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady On Fire answers that question with a loud, resounding yes.
Marianne (Noelle Merlant) is a talented portrait painter who is summoned to a small isolated island for a commission. She is to paint the unpaintable: a wedding portrait for Heloise (Adele Haenel), who refuses to sit for any artist because she does not believe in marriage. Marianne is hired under the guise that she will be Heloise’s “companion” who will walk with her around the island, observing her every movement so Marianne can successfully paint the portrait. Marianne is being paid to literally watch Heloise and in that process of watching, she falls in love. After Heloise’s mother leaves for five days, the two women, plus the house maid Sophie, fall into a comfortable routine where they can just be themselves. The two women enter a passionate, yet short-lived, romance where they revolve around each other, playing a game of looking and being looked at as their eyes swim over each other’s eyes, lips, cheeks, and necks.
Importantly, there are almost no men in this film. They appear at the very beginning and the very end of the film, playing ancillary characters who barely mutter any lines other than “bonjour.” This is a world of women, a place where they can exercise some semblance of independence outside patriarchal control. While this seems to be a feminine utopia, splashes of patriarchy enter the world, from Marianna’s struggles as a female artist to Heloise’s looming engagement. However, in the few days the two have together, it is a place where they can love freely. Without any male characters present, plus with the presence of a woman behind the camera, the female gaze can truly flourish.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film about looking but not ogling. There are no lingering images of breasts or legs, no attempts to cut the female body up into consumable pieces. Rather, faces are the focus; the quick movement of eyes from lips to meet the other’s gaze; a subtle brushing of the hand; the intense stare of an artist scrutinizing her subject. The human body is on display as a site/sight of love, art, and passion and it is to be gazed upon as such. If the male gaze is about consumption and objectification, the female gaze is about observation and deep appreciation.
The power of these gazes would be nothing without Merlant and Haenel as Marianne and Heloise, respectively. Their facial expressions convey desire, frustration, restraint. Without a word, you can feel the electricity between them. They are powerful women who stand up for themselves and are still surprised by each other. The use of closeups on their faces amplify the power of their gazes and surprise, helping the audience focus on just the two women and nothing else. Both Merlant and Haenel convey the overwhelming power of quick, fast, and deep love.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is heart-breaking but stunning. It is a film about a devastating reality to love, especially when that love is not deemed conventional. Sciamma’s latest film captures the essence of female desire and portrays it with a respectful yet lustful gaze that electrifies the audience. The love between Marianne and Heloise is not a spectacle; rather it is something akin to art. Each touch, quickly-met gaze, and kiss is another stroke of the brush, painting a picture of lesbian love. Its final shot is an amalgamation of emotions that range from fear to devastation to relief, the last brush stroke of a masterpiece. If there is any film you need to see this year, it is Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
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