Marianne stares at Héloïse in bed in a still from 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' (2019)
Marianne stares at Héloïse in bed in a still from 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' (2019)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Stories & Ideas

Thu 01 Jul 2021

Reframing 'the gaze': Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Film Representation Retrospective
Ellen Muller
Ellen Muller


Céline Sciamma's masterpiece adds to a wider conversation about the 'male gaze' and power dynamics in film, asking us to consider both the person being represented but also the artist creating the representation.

When Roman Polanski won best director at the Cèsar Awards in 2020, Céline Sciamma – the director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) and its lead Adèle Haenel, walked out of the ceremony in protest, with Haenel calling out “Bravo pedophilia” in the lobby.

Haenel saw the nomination of the 87-year-old – who pled guilty to unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977, and who, prior to the release of his latest film for which he was nominated, was accused of raping an 18 year old French woman in 1975 as “spitting on the face of all victims”. More broadly, their objection was also significant as Haenel is one of the most prominent voices to speak up against sexual misconduct and abuse in the French film industry; coming forward in November 2019 with her own experience of alleged sexual harassment as a child from French director, Christophe Ruggia.

On the surface, the film Sciamma and Haenel were there at the Cèsar Awards for seems discrete from their protests against continued acceptance of Polanski or contemporary discussions on abuse of power in general. Set in 18th century France, off the isolated coast of Brittany, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a fictional queer period piece where physical male presence is largely absent. And yet, Sciamma and Haenel’s demonstrated refusal to turn a blind eye to crimes against women by ‘creative geniuses’, intersects with Portrait’s overarching premise, best described by the director as being her “manifesto about the female gaze”.

Portrait’s existence as a love story between an artist and muse that is inherently equal (and which was written and directed by a queer woman) reflects modern ideals of what collaboration and representation should look like. The film has been widely praised for challenging romanticised legends of artists who had passionate affairs with the women who inspired their work – but this is not limited to muses, or power imbalance, in fine art. The film is very much a product of its time, and while the characters face inequalities pertinent to their era; beyond the screen, Portrait adds to a wider conversation about the ‘male gaze’ and power dynamics in its visual medium of film.

In film theory the ‘gaze’ refers to how we interpret visual representations. Whereas, the term ‘male gaze’, coined by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, refers to Mulvey’s contention that the majority of popular movies are filmed by male directors, from a heterosexual-male protagonist’s perspective with the same audience in mind – meaning female characters are ultimately written and portrayed to appeal to men.

In Portrait, despite a virtual absence of male presence; the lives of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) and the artist who is commissioned to paint her, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), are circumscribed by the patriarchy but in different ways. For Héloïse, her portrait is to be a gift for a wealthy Italian she hasn’t met, whom she will be forced to marry, pending his approval of her portrait. Whereas Marianne has a level of independence as the daughter of an artist whose business she will inherit, yet her advancement as an artist can only go so far – needing for instance, to submit portraits under her father’s name in order for her work to be shown and to circumvent the law preventing her from painting male nude models. Their experience of repression is different and recognising that distinction is important, with Héloïse telling Marianne,“You can choose [marriage] that’s why you don’t understand me”.

Here, the process of creating Héloïse’s portrait is both a timeless allegory for the ‘male gaze’ but also a story which allows the muse to have autonomy. Marianne is the second artist commissioned to paint Héloïse – the first, a male artist whom she refused to sit for in objection to her prospective marriage, left without ever seeing Héloïse’s face. So, Marianne must work on the portrait in secret and spend time with Héloïse under the guise that she has been hired to serve as a walking companion. Their relationship only develops both romantically and into a collaboration when Marianne tells Héloïse the truth once the portrait is done, and following Héloïse’s critique of her depiction, destroys it (despite Héloïse’s mother being pleased with it) and starts again.

At first, Marianne is hurt by Héloïse’s criticism that the portrait “isn’t close to you” – defensively responding, “how do you know it isn’t close to me? Are you an art critic?”. Yet by caring about the person being visually represented and creating something new with their consent, the final portrait which is both a greater representation of Héloïse but also a greater credit to Marianne as an artist: as Héloïse surmises, “you didn’t destroy the last one for me, you did it for you”. However, as the portrait is ultimately intended for the unknown man to which Héloïse is betrothed, the romantic relationship between the characters is marred by their constant awareness of who the portrait is for and how it will determine Héloïse’s fate. This looming end is represented through both the ghostly figure of Héloïse in white which haunts Marianne, and the use of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth; an allegory which Sciamma explained, “…because it’s basically about how the male gaze can kill you", as Eurydice is ultimately at the mercy of Orpheus’s gaze.

In an interview with Little White Lies, Sciamma discusses the forgotten lives of invisible women” and how for her, the word muse, “hides the reality of collaboration in the history of art”. Although fictional, the film asks us to consider both the person being represented but also the artist creating the representation. Marianne’s final depiction of Héloïse is a work of art because she loves her; and while their repression is different – as a woman, Marianne is able to appreciate the powerlessness of Héloïse’s position. Moreover, while Marianne did not exist, she represents the unknown female painters whose absence is stark within art history. Similarly, as a female director, Sciamma works in a creative profession where under-representation and gender disparity are prevalent – with female directors representing just 19% of the 100 top grossing films in the year of Portrait’s release.

Reviews of Portrait draw comparisons, not just to famous examples of imbalance within artist and muse relationships, but notably to another queer French film, Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) by male director, Abdellatif Kechiche. Both premiering at Cannes Film Festival and met with international acclaim upon their release; their differences as cinematic representations of a lesbian love affair, embody why who is behind the representations we consume is important – and not just the representation alone.

Céline Sciamma

Céline Sciamma

Famously, the author of the 2010 graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Colour is based, Julie Maroh, expressed disappointment in the adaption’s lack of queer advisory – remarking, “this is what was missing on the set: lesbians”. Now, commentators such as Rachel Syme, interpret the subtle intimacy of Portrait as a “rebuke” to Blue is the Warmest Colour’s infamous six-minute sex scene which the female actors later professed they found demeaning to film. Kechiche attempted to make his portrayal apolitical and prioritise it as a story of a couple rather than placing importance on it being a relationship between two women; while in theory this mindset values representation which is equal, what critics have respected about Portrait in comparison is that it doesn’t ignore the fact that Marianne and Héloïse are women and that their relationship is inevitably affected by the patriarchy.

In the same interview with Little White Lies, Sciamma summed up the timeless quality of Portrait – “because a story that hasn’t yet been told does not necessarily belong to the past”. This resonates both with the invisible history Portrait represents as well as the director and Haenel’s refusal to “turn a blind eye” to the “past mistakes of creative geniuses” who abused their power. Through giving power back to the ‘muse’ – a figure who is traditionally assumed to be pliable at the hands of artist, Portrait adds to contemporary discussions on the ‘male gaze’ and what meaningful representation looks like.

– Ellen Muller

Watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma's intricate and unforgettable masterpiece is now available to rent on Cinema 3.

You might also like