As I watched Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), I felt I had done it a disservice solely by putting off seeing it for so long. The film did laps around the festival circuit, gathering every accolade imaginable before its wide release was cut short by COVID-19. Still, while its industry clout put it on my radar, it was only another movie on my to-be-watched-in-quarantine list. Eventually. When I got around to it.
The ignorant apathy with which I foraged the internet for a pirated copy transformed into total absorption ten minutes into watching. At the end, I emerged from my blanket cocoon insistent that everyone I know watch it for themselves, texting friends unsolicited links to a bootleg streaming site. I mostly just wanted someone with whom I could discuss it. Sometimes a piece of art is so moving that I can’t comprehend why. In these instances, my body reacts before my mind does; I’ll cry before I can name the reason why I’m crying or before I feel a twinge of sadness at all. Fleshing it out with another person helps to deepen my understanding of the art and of myself.
I did have this conversation with a friend, and some unexpected insights on feminism in the film led me to consider that there was a link between my profound emotional reaction and Sciamma’s female gaze. The female gaze, in general, means more than having a woman behind the camera, since female filmmakers can and do cater to the male gaze. Rather, it’s a disposition that respects women, their bodies, and the relationships of women to one another. I don’t necessarily look to the female gaze to shut my eyes to the objectifying male gaze. I want it to represent womanhood thoughtfully and authentically enough that it grants reprieve, while still ringing true to the uncomfortable reality of how women are viewed and treated by men. Sciamma achieves exactly this through her depiction of the artist-muse relationship between Marianne and Héloïse.
Set in eighteenth-century France, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is about a young woman named Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) who is betrothed to a Milanese nobleman but refuses to pose for the portrait that will be sent to him to authenticate her beauty; consequently, painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) must observe Héloïse under the guise of acting as her walking companion to be able to paint the portrait in secret.
In Greek mythology, the muses were goddesses of science, literature, and the arts. They were certainly more knowledgeable than the men they inspired and were respected for it, but the perception of muses within Western culture couldn’t be more different. All of the iconic artist-muse couples follow a narrative in which the artist “discovers” his muse and unveils her to the world. (The dynamic of these popular representations is nearly always a male artist and a female muse.) Through this presentation, muses are made into products of the artists they inspire; they’re filtered through the male gaze, sexualized and commodified, and thrown into the deep end of public consumption.
Sciamma skillfully sets up her rendition of the artist-muse relationship, one closer to that of Greek mythology than the Western-washed version we know, by first ushering a takedown of the male gaze. In her initial attempt, Marianne finishes the portrait but fails to encapsulate Héloïse; it’s void of the intense, burning energy she carries and brings to her relationship with Marianne. “I didn’t know you were an art critic,” Marianne says in response to Héloïse’s criticism after the portrait, along with her true purpose for being there, is revealed. “I didn’t know you were a painter,” Héloïse rebutes. By constraining Héloïse to the role of a passive subject, Marianne unwittingly impresses the male gaze upon her, the portrait a vehicle for the consequences of such an imposition.
In an act of love, trust, and reverence, Héloïse agrees to pose for Marianne. As she sits atop a pedestal with her elbow propped, we’re reminded that she retains her agency: “When you don’t know what to say, you touch your forehead. When you lose control, you raise your eyebrows. And when you’re troubled, you breathe through your mouth.” Héloïse, it turns out, had been observing Marianne too, and extends her share of the reciprocal understanding necessary to the task of making great art. The female gaze, like the relationship of artists and muses, can’t work one-sided—it sees all women through the eyes of another. Hypothetically, if Marianne could watch Héloïse without an eventual reversal of roles, she would never truly get to know her.
In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma thoughtfully wields the female gaze to accredit the muse’s contribution to the creative process. Perhaps the best part of my experience of the film was discovering that Sciamma and Haenel were longtime collaborators and former lovers, to learn that Sciamma’s gaze was not merely her own, but a collaboration born from a legacy of mutual respect between artist and muse.