Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is eerily suited to a viewing in lockdown. The filmmaker’s 2019 masterpiece, a lesbian love story set in 18th-century France and now available to watch on Hulu, is one of a number of films to hit streaming ahead of originally planned digital release dates — a blessing to all of us trapped at home right now.
Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives on a remote island off the coast of Brittany at the request of the Comtesse (Valeria Golino), who’s commissioned Marianne to paint a portrait of her daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Héloïse had been called home from a Benedictine convent because her sister, who’d been betrothed to a Milanese nobleman, recently fell from the cliffs to her death in a suspected suicide; Héloïse must now marry the Italian in her sister’s place. But before Marianne’s arrival, Héloïse had already spoiled her mother’s plans to have her portrait painted and sent to Milan for the prospective husband’s appraisal, because she refused to sit for a male artist. Now, Marianne must try to study Héloïse in the guise of acting as her walking companion to then paint her in secret.
“It’d be tempting, and not entirely off-point, to read Portrait of a Lady on Fire as a deconstruction of the male gaze,” Bilge Ebiri wrote in his Vulture review. After all, once Marianne is dropped by boat on the rocky shores, men disappear from the narrative entirely, at least until Marianne is ferried back to Parisian society toward the end. “But the film isn’t nearly so schematic, or simplistic; it exists not to undermine an idea but to make us see a world anew.”
I was certainly tempted to read the film, at least in part, as a repudiation of male directors’ approaches to lesbian storytelling, especially in arthouse and prestige cinema. Where Park Chan-wook’s otherwise spectacular erotic thriller The Handmaiden deploys a number of sensationalized and rather obscenely fluid-heavy sex scenes, Sciamma forgoes graphic depictions of intercourse entirely (save for a delicious shot of the women rubbing a hallucinegetic drug into each other’s armpits). Over the past decade, well-regarded films about women who love women, directed by men — from Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color to Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria to Todd Haynes’ Carol (beloved by many lesbians but, alas, not this one) — have to varying degrees expressed a breathless wonder at the beguiling sexiness of two femmes getting it on. The characters are not so much real, fleshed-out women as they are archetypes, or foils of each other, or overwrought artistic metaphors. In Blue, for example, the leads’ naked bodies are graphically matched with statues in museums; a man at a party, seemingly a stand-in for the director himself, waxes poetic about the mysteries of the female orgasm. Women have been male artists’ models, as well as their (uncredited) partners or collaborators, throughout much of human history, so two women together offers male creators still more opportunities for inspiration (and, of course, titillation).
But Ebiri is right. Sciamma is not rejecting the male gaze so much as she’s offering us an entirely new way of looking. Her film isn’t in conversation with those male directors’ works; Portrait is a universe unto itself. In interviews, Sciamma has refused to dignify certain male directors’ substandard efforts with the respect required of legitimate cultural criticism, even the harshest kinds: “I don’t give a fuck,” she told the Guardian when asked about Kechiche’s controversial film. “I don’t give a shit about it.” (She and Haenel recently walked out of the Cesar Awards ceremony, the Oscars of France, when the top prize was awarded to convicted rapist Roman Polanski.)
Portrait is entirely of Sciamma’s creation. She wrote and directed the project, all the while collaborating with Haenel, who plays Héloïse, and with whom she was, until recently, in a romantic relationship. Unlike male auteurs who might push their actors to unethical limits and glean all the resulting glory, Sciamma considers filmmaking — all artwork — as “co-creation.” She noted in the Guardian interview that so many women have been relegated to the role of “muse” in the annals of history, even when they themselves were artists in their own right.
As Héloïse and Marianne fall in lust and love, Héloïse pushes her portraitist to consider that she’s not the only one capable of creation. In one extraordinary scene, Héloïse urges Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), her young maid, with whom the women have grown close in the temporary absence of the Comtesse, to help her pose for a painting. Earlier that day, Marianne and Héloïse had taken Sophie to get an abortion from a local herbalist, when Héloïse had encouraged Marianne not to look away. Now, by the light of the fire, Héloïse and Sophie re-create the abortion, Héloïse’s hand up Sophie’s skirt, while Marianne commits the scene to paper.
Though men and their dangerous, undeserved powers hover ominously just outside the trio’s idyll — the faceless, nameless stranger who got Sophie pregnant; the man Héloïse is supposed to marry, sight unseen; Marianne’s artist father, from whom she’ll inherit the family business, and under whose name she’s sometimes forced to submit paintings — the women wield their own powers of generation and destruction. The first time Héloïse and Marianne meet, Héloïse sprints out toward the cliffs and stops just short of tumbling over the edge, as her sister had before her. “I’ve dreamt of that for years,” she says. “To die?” Marianne asks. “To run,” Héloïse says.
One night, after Héloïse reads Ovid’s “Orpheus and Eurydice” aloud to Marianne and Sophie, the three women debate about why Orpheus, upon leaving Hades, looked back at his lover Eurydice — the one thing he was expressly told not to do — thus dooming her forever to the underworld. Héloïse wonders if maybe Eurydice told Orpheus to look back; perhaps she played a role in her own end. Marianne thinks differently: “He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s. He chooses the memory of her.” Later, when Marianne and Héloïse are forced to part themselves, neither is without agency: Like her imagined version of Eurydice, Héloïse encourages Marianne to look back at her — and like her Orpheus, Marianne chooses not to regret, but to remember.
Read in the context of the queer death drive, a concept coined by the critic Lee Edelman in his 2004 polemic, both Marianne and Héloïse — and Sophie, most obviously, with her abortion — inadvertently or otherwise reject a politics of “reproductive futurism.” Edelman argues that the queer refusal to engage in the endless capitalist march toward some undetermined future, for the sake of some as-yet nonexistent child, is the essence of queer jouissance: pleasure, delight, ecstasy. For Marianne and Héloïse, as has been the case for so many lesbian couples throughout history, there simply cannot be a future. But that doesn’t make their romance, however brief, any less passionate or profound. In fact, their shared love for the pleasures of sex and drugs, for art and music (a Vivaldi piece is played twice, in different contexts, to revelatory effects), is what will always connect them, long after they see each other for the last time.
Sciamma baffled readers when she told Vox she was inspired in part by James Cameron’s ’90s behemoth, Titanic, not only because it’s “a love story with equality and with emancipation,” but also “because it’s totally queer.” Though straight people were confused, as usual, all lesbian Titanic-heads know that Jack and Rose’s affair is actually as gay as a seemingly hetero love story gets. Though it’s a tragedy — which is the case for all too many queer movies, even today — Titanic imbues so much power in the gift of memory, of treasuring human connection and joy and pleasure, of being truly seen by another person, that you can just as easily read the film as a story of love’s triumphs against the ever-present backdrop of pain and despair.
Every love story, after all, ends in tragedy. It’s just a matter of when. You need only look to the surprising, gorgeous romance tucked into HBO’s Watchmen to learn that lesson. There are no guarantees. No happy endings. There’s only the moments we have right in front of us — and the best and the worst of our memories. It feels like a particularly poignant, if heartbreaking, takeaway for our current moment, when any future at all seems terribly uncertain. But hopefully that just makes our love, however fleeting, however finite, all the sweeter. ●