Writing by Sarah Simpson. Illustration by Sarah Simpson.
First released in France in 2019 and in the UK in February of this year, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire has been met with overwhelmingly positive reviews. What makes the film so compelling is its reframing of life experiences through a distinctly female and queer perspective. Sciamma herself referred to the film as “a manifesto about the female gaze” in an interview with Vox. Portrait turns the traditional (gendered) artist-muse dynamic on its head through its exploration of the relationship between Héloïse, an aristocratic woman on the brink of a marriage she dreads, and Marianne, the painter commissioned to paint her wedding portrait.
Initially, Marianne is forced to work in secret, as Héloïse refuses to be painted. She has already driven off a previous painter, a man, rejecting the depiction of herself through his male perspective. Once she discovers Marianne’s true purpose, she demands to see her painting; this, too, Héloïse rejects, as it does not reflect her perception of herself. She then agrees to sit for the new portrait, over which she will now have more power: she will be painted, but only on her own terms.
As Marianne and Héloïse become lovers, art continues to play a role in their relationship. Marianne’s painting moves from the formal sphere of wedding portraiture to the intimate act of drawing Héloïse in bed, naked between the sheets. The scene calls to mind another one: the much-memed scene from Titanic in which Kate Winslet instructs a floppy-haired Leo DiCaprio to “Draw me like one of your French girls.” In the Vox interview, Sciamma herself notes the dialogue between Portrait and the 1997 film.
In the case of Portrait, the “French girl” (as it were) calls attention to the imbalance in the muse-artist relationship. Héloïse points out that while Marianne will carry this portrait with her, Héloïse will have no image of Marianne. The model asks for a picture of the artist: it’s a total inversion of the relationship. Rose never asked for a portrait of Jack. The Greek muses, all female, had a one-way relationship with the male artists they inspired. Héloïse demonstrates her disinterest in being a mere object to be painted. As much as Marianne admires Héloïse, so too does Héloïse desire Marianne. She demands that the relationship be on an equal footing, or it will not be at all. Queerness lends a symmetry to Héloïse and Marianne’s relationship that its forebears lack. This is not to say that there cannot be any imbalances. The pair’s experiences differ for reasons other than gender: as a painter, Marianne is free to practise her profession and to choose not to marry, freedoms that Héloïse does not share; she is also more sexually experienced than Héloïse. All of this may contribute to the couple’s power dynamic; however, this dynamic is not influenced by gender.
Marianne draws a portrait of herself in Héloïse’s book for her to keep. In order to see herself, she props up a small mirror on Héloïse’s pubic area. Of course, it’s a sign of the sexual intimacy of their relationship. But it’s also another inversion of artistic norms. Paintings of women with mirrors traditionally come with moral judgment attached. If you Google “vanity painting” you’ll be met with a whole host of pictures of women gazing at their own reflections. As John Berger comments in his book Ways of Seeing: “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”
Marianne is active, painting herself rather than being painted by a man. She owns the act of examining her own reflection, flying in the face of the sexist paradigm that denigrates any woman who dares to admire herself. It is by no means an issue limited to 1770s France: in 2020 we see a constant stream of men shaming women for daring to produce images of themselves in the form of selfies. Women’s self-love and control over their own images are considered a threat to the established order of the patriarchy.
The focus throughout the film is on relationships between women: of course, Héloïse and Marianne’s love story takes centre stage, but it is not to the exclusion of other types of female relationships. For much of the runtime, the pair are accompanied by Héloïse’s maid, Sophie. Once Héloïse’s mother leaves for several days, the relationship between the three young women grows into a strong and moving friendship. In the absence of others, social hierarchies begin to break down: Héloïse and Marianne are seen cooking and serving wine while Sophie embroiders, an inversion of their expected roles. A scene of the trio playing cards and laughing together is particularly infectious in its joy and humour. It’s refreshing to see a story that is able to celebrate both queer love and female friendship simultaneously, where the “third” woman is not an obstacle of disapproval or jealousy.
Sophie’s own storyline is just as compelling as the romance. Finding herself pregnant, she seeks an abortion. She receives help and support from Marianne and Héloïse: the morality of her decision is never called into question by the other women in her life. It’s striking to see the exploration of a topic like abortion in a period piece, particularly one as beautiful and romance-focused as this one. The film doesn’t shy away from this often taboo topic, treating it as a fact of life throughout history.
Ultimately, Sophie must go back to being a maid, and Héloïse must marry. Marianne returns to her life of relative freedom as an artist, but in which she is still at times forced to submit paintings under her father’s name. The end of their utopic living arrangements is heralded by the first appearance of a man’s face on screen, ten minutes before the end of the film. By then the audience has grown so used to the absence of men that their presence is jarring. It’s a return to reality: the film’s escapism can only last so long. But the women are left with the memory of it forever: in one of the final scenes, Marianne receives proof that Héloïse has not forgotten her, despite her marriage and children, when she sees a portrait of her holding the book in which Marianne drew her own portrait. The practical impossibility of the women running away together does not negate the love they shared. The film rails against the conception that the only valuable relationships are those that last “’til death do us part”. Marianne and Héloïse are able to experience love despite a world that would deny it to them, and to survive in that world with the shared memory of their love.