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Essay

BEYOND THE GAZE: THE RADICAL DESIRE OF PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

Céline Sciamma’s film blends art and ecstasy and reaches towards utopia

Words by Katy D’Avella

There’s a scene in the polarising, Palme d’Or-winning film Blue is the Warmest Colour / La vie d’Adèle (2013) in which a male artist explains the history of art and female pleasure. Talking to the protagonist, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), he delivers an art and gender studies masterclass in one fell swoop: 

Ever since women have been depicted in paintings, their ecstasy is shown more than mens’, which is shown through the woman. Men try desperately to depict it, to prove that they saw it: their fantasy.

Blue was not only problematic for the director’s treatment of the cast. It also offered harmful and outdated stereotypes about the ways in which women desire women — and how these desires are depicted on screen. 

It’s not often that projections of queer women break into mainstream cinema. And when they do, it’s usually in the form of the white, cis-gendered woman — whose desire is ambiguous, forbidden, or destined for tragedy. Chasing Amy (1997), Chloe (2009), and Black Swan (2010) all depicted desire between women filtered through the mechanisms of heteropatriarchy. A lesbian who is tempted by a man, a dangerous ménage à trois, a brutal fantasy—these films played up the tantalising idea of lesbian desire but lacked the legibility. It is so rare to see two women fall in love (or lust) on screen, yet cinematic representations of it haven’t always felt true to the queer experience.

In recent years, however, films like Carol (2015) and Disobedience (2017) have offered more nuanced depictions. And The Handmaiden (2016) divided critics with its graphic sex scenes and gripping power play. As the popular film industry begins to make legitimate space for female queerness, it’s worth asking: whose pleasure is being prioritised, and whose is being offered up for consumption? 

Film scholar Clara Bradbury-Rance writes:

…because of sexist, homophobic, and racist processes at work in mainstream cinema… the lesbian has historically been given visual form only in male (and often white, straight, cis-gendered) fantasy.

How right Blue’s male artist character was. Queer self-representation has long been a difficult project within the realm of mainstream cinema. Of course, there are many incredible films made by and for the queer community. But the question of broader spectatorship lingers. Who else will fund films that hold space for queer female subjectivity? And who else will want to see them?

Freud’s theorisation of desire, which rests on a phallocentric model of sexual difference, has inspired feminist theories that illuminate the ways in which desire works in film.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019), Curzon Artificial Eye, France, Colour, Sound, 122 minutes, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel)

That’s why many are curious about the latest addition to the lesbian film canon. Writer-director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire / Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (2019) takes place on the coast in 18th century Brittany. It is not a story of a forbidden romance, a tragic bildungsroman, nor an exploitation of the female body. Instead, Sciamma invents a love story between two women who embrace their desires. It took home the prize for Best Screenplay at Cannes, and was nominated for 10 César awards. It is perhaps the most successful and critically acclaimed film about queer female desire to date. And it joins the canon of beloved films like Desert Hearts (1985) and Rafiki (2018).

In the film, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a wedding portrait for the bourgeoise Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Stubborn and grieving the loss of her sister, Héloïse refuses to sit for the portrait. And so, Marianne must secretly observe her during their walks, and paint her later, alone by candlelight. Eventually, they develop a bond, which soon becomes intimate. After a confession, a love blossoms, and they together finish the portrait. It is a collaborative work where both women hold the paintbrush, as well as the gaze. 

Alright—it only took 597 words, but I’ve used the word “gaze” in my piece about Céline Sciamma. I’ll take my bow now. Kidding aside, the coverage for this film has been quite impressive. As a student of feminist psychoanalytic film theory, I’ve spent years thinking about female spectatorship in film. To see top critics like Mark Kermode and A.O. Scott engaging deeply with historical theories of the female gaze in widely read newspapers is fantastic. 

Without directly referencing it, these reviews, which celebrate Portrait as a masterpiece of the female gaze, are engaging with feminist psychoanalytic film theory. It is in Sigmund Freud’s analysis of Oedipus the King that we’re first introduced to the theory of castration anxiety. This refers to a young boy’s painful realisation of sexual feelings towards his mother and the horrific punishment that might come with it. For a young girl, this is experienced as a lack — and a sense of longing. Here, Freud codes desire as active and masculine, and desirability as passive and feminine. 

Of course, this reading has been heavily critiqued. But as Jerry Aline Flieger explains:

…more important than the rightness or wrongness of any of Freud’s theoretical speculations is the fact that his thought encourages us to question rigidly held truths as inherently suspect in their motivation, thus opening a field for debate and revision”.

And revise, we have. Freud’s theorisation of desire, which rests on a phallocentric model of sexual difference, has inspired feminist theories that illuminate the ways in which desire works in film. His work helps us understand how representations of desire on-screen might create and uphold the unequal balances of power relating to gender and sexuality.

It is only when they begin to see each other as equal—not artist and muse—that the portrait begins to take shape. And as spectators, we are slowly invited to identify with each of the lovers as they creep towards intimacy.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019), Curzon Artificial Eye, France, Colour, Sound, 122 minutes, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), Marianne (Noémie Merlant)

One can’t help but bring in the film scholar Laura Mulvey here. In her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), she applied these theories of desire to popular Hollywood films. She interpreted the pleasure in looking as an inherently gendered process. And so, the male gaze was born.

Mulvey ignited a conversation about spectatorship, desire, and power in film. And scholars, spectators and critics alike continue to discuss the possibility of more diverse spectatorial pleasures in the act of moviegoing. Is the female gaze a possibility? And what of the queer gaze? 

Film scholars like Teresa de Lauretis (a Freudian orthodox) and Jackie Stacey (a Freudian revisionist) have offered divergent solutions to this dilemma. For de Lauretis, the gaze is liberating, challenging, counter-hegemonic. Here, look to the antics in Harry Dodge’s queer buddy flick By Hook or By Crook (2001). For Stacey, it’s a site of female identification and bonding, where a viewer can see themself represented on screen. Perhaps anyone who watched But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) and felt a twinge of recognition in their throat will understand.

Given the dearth of mainstream movies that centre queer female subjectivity, the question of whether the female gaze can definitively function on the big screen remains open. Is a diverse audience interested in seeing two women fall in love (but really)? With Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I’d like to argue that we can collectively move on from this question—the female gaze is alive and well!

We see it between Marianne and Héloïse as they grant each other furtive looks whilst walking on the beach in the blinding sunlight. We identify with Marianne, who is an active looker, and with Héloïse, who returns the look. There is no male gaze, but rather dualistic, active female spectators. “If you look at me, who do I look at?” asks Héloïse whilst being painted. The act of portraiture is fertile ground for their shared gaze, and ours. It is only when they begin to see each other as equal—not artist and muse—that the portrait begins to take shape. And as spectators, we are slowly invited to identify with each of the lovers as they creep towards intimacy.

The hegemonic viewing position of tragic lesbian films past is destabilised. It is not even given ground to walk on—there are no masculine characters with which to position oneself. Whilst Héloïse must ultimately marry a Milanese suitor, we do not see him, nor sit in his subjectivity.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019), Curzon Artificial Eye, France, Colour, Sound, 122 minutes

These gazes are about pleasure, but they’re also about power. Analysing Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre, theorist Judith Butler explains: 

For the masculine subject of desire, trouble became a scandal with the sudden intrusion, the unanticipated agency, of a female ‘object’ who inexplicably returns the glances, reverses the gaze, and contests the place and authority of the masculine position. 

In Portrait, the hegemonic viewing position of tragic lesbian films past is destabilised. It is not even given ground to walk on—there are no masculine characters with which to position oneself. Whilst Héloïse must ultimately marry a Milanese suitor, we do not see him, nor sit in his subjectivity. We know nothing of him, aside from his symbolic status as wealthy. Instead, we bask in the sunlight with our female lovers, watching them watch each other. 

Indeed, the film’s magic rests upon its ability to capture the intimacy between its two lovers, and the radical spirit of choosing love and joy—even fleetingly—within and despite the constraints of the patriarchy. Sciamma has created a space for queer female subjectivity to just… be. And for some 45 minutes of the film, Marianne and Héloïse seem to live in a heavenly, utopian space: they are alone, without rules, authority figures, or bodily symbols of the patriarchy and heteronormativity. It can’t last forever, but it is intimate and beautiful while it does.

As José Esteban Muñoz writes, “We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality”. This is queer representation on a macro level, and on an emotional, authentic one, too. 

With Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma offers an important contribution to the lesbian film canon. Not simply for its ability to depict the female gaze—but for its legibility as queer, and its transcendence into the mainstream as such. Even with its cinema run cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, the film has grossed $23 million thus far, and become something of a beloved ode to social distancing

Depicting female desire on screen is all about depicting female desire on canvas. Her characters are in control of not only their gaze, but the production of their art, and their joy. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire / Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Céline Sciamma, 2019), Curzon Artificial Eye, France, Colour, Sound, 122 minutes
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019), Curzon Artificial Eye, France, Colour, Sound, 122 minutes, Marianne (Noémie Merlant)

Almost every other mainstream film depicting lesbian love falls into one of these categories: it is optimised for heterosexual audiences, exploits the female body, or ends in trauma. Take Blue is the Warmest Colour, a film that made $19 million at the box office. It bordered on pornographic, and our Adèle was left heartbroken and alone. Or Kissing Jessica Stein (2002): it made $10 million and followed a heterosexist plot formula that led the titular Jessica on a quest back to her boyfriend.

Many of these films gained popularity for their cinema du corps style—their emphasis on the female physique. Others capitalised on capturing moments of trauma bound up with coming out for their melodramatic rush. And it’s no surprise that these films are often directed by those with power in the film industry who might not be best placed to, well, direct these narratives: those ostensibly outside the queer community.

So the stakes are high when it comes to queer female self-representation on screen. Because the bar has been set so low. Céline Sciamma knows this—her film depicting female desire on screen is all about depicting female desire on canvas. Her characters are in control of not only their gaze, but the production of their art, and their joy. 

Think back to our stubborn male artist: we no longer need him. We can see the fantasy, the ecstasy for ourselves.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is available to stream now via Curzon Home Cinema and will be available on UK home video 8th June.


Katy D'Avella

By Katy D'Avella

Katy D'Avella is a writer and cinephile based in London. She has an MSc in Media Studies, where she focused on film theory, and has appeared on film podcasts like Projections Podcast.