The power of the gaze in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Director Celine Sciamma’s mesmerising love story is the ultimate celebration of women artists


By Gala Woolley


Director Celine Sciamma described her film Portrait of a Lady on Fire as “a manifesto on the female gaze.” Although now a popular buzzword, the expression has never been so powerfully epitomised than in this film.


In the 1973 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey coined the term ‘male gaze’ to describe the patriarchal lens through which women in film are presented. Female-centric both in front of and behind the camera, Sciamma’s film is about female artists, by female artists, and celebrates the value of women’s work in a historically patriarchal medium.


Via mk2films

In 18th century France, young artist Marianne (played by Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of a merchant’s daughter, Héloïse (played by Adèle Haenel). In protest of her arranged marriage, Héloïse refused to pose for a previous painter, so Marianne must initially paint her in secret.


After Marianne later comes clean that she was sent to paint Héloïse, the merchant’s daughter finally allows her, and Sciamma subverts the power imbalance of artist and muse by creating a reciprocal gaze that positions the two women as equals. While painting Héloïse, Marianne tells her that she would not like to be in her “place”, to which Héloïse assertively replies, “we are in exactly the same place.” She then beckons Marianne over to where she is sitting and powerfully asks: “if you look at me, who do I look at?”


This line effectively establishes the balance of both their artistic and romantic relationship, as Héloïse is not simply being looked at, but she is looking back. In refusing to assume the role of object, the film scrutinises the function of the gaze itself, by replacing the observer and the observed with two artistic collaborators.


“There’s no man in the film, not as some kind of punishment, but as a way for them to go through someone else’s journey.” – Celine Sciamma

Sciamma explained during an interview, “there’s no man in the film, not as some kind of punishment, but as a way for them to go through someone else’s journey.” The director creates an artistic world in which men are almost entirely absent, with a simultaneous awareness of the patriarchy that has historically governed it.


One way that this awareness is seen in the film is when it is revealed that Marianne submits her paintings to galleries under her father’s name, immediately bringing to mind writers such as George Eliot and the Brontës, who published their work under ‘male’ pseudonyms.


However, Sciamma also aimed to turn the patriarchy on its head. In one powerful scene, Marianne, Héloïse, and the young servant girl, Sophie, read the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. In the Greek Myth, Eurydice is brought back from the dead, on condition that Orpheus does not turn back to look at her. However Orpheus disobeys, and as he turns to see his lover, she is taken back to the underworld forever. Sophie is enraged by the character’s disobedience, but Héloïse suggests that “perhaps [Eurydice] was the one who said ‘turn around’.” This feminist reimagining of a famous myth subverts the male gaze, as it allows the female protagonist to control it.


Via mk2films

Sciamma once described the female gaze as “a decision not to objectify people,” and critics have compared her film to the dominant male gaze in Blue is the Warmest Colour. The 2013 film Blue is the Warmest Colour notoriously featured a graphic seven-minute sex scene, which Julie Maroh, author of the original book, described as “a brutal and surgical display of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn.” Indeed, the scene feels more like a male fantasy of lesbianism, and the gratuitous voyeurism in the male-directed film can be clearly attributed to the absence of a female gaze.


In total contrast, Sciamma’s film is erotic without being overly sexual, and the most intimate moments between Héloïse and Marianne are arguably the glances they share. A key example of this is a scene halfway through the film, when the two women look at each other across a bonfire, their faces illuminated in a golden glow. It is the first of only two instances in the entire film that music is heard, as a group of women begin clapping and chanting in a trance-like harmony. The combination of the image and sound is so mesmerizingly beautiful in its poetic encapsulation of their growing desire. In my opinion, it is the most powerful scene produced in recent cinema.


“[The female gaze is] a decision not to objectify people.” – Celine Sciamma

In such a feminist film, it is incredibly poignant that Adèle Haenel was the first French actress to speak out in the #MeToo movement. And as part of this larger battle, Sciamma’s film gives a voice to previously silenced women. With its awareness of the ‘female’ perspective, the film rejects the male gaze which has notoriously rendered cinema a patriarchal institution. If gender equality in the movie industry is to be achieved, this is the film which its successors must aspire to.


Portrait of a Lady on Fire is available to watch on MUBI and Curzon Home Cinema.