“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a Staggering Work of Lesbian Gaze

First, there is being a woman. The softness of your skin, packed within a flowing dress, containing a body you can stretch and push, that’s filled with pains that are ignored, that’s taken, often, against your will. That’s capable of so much that so many won’t see. Or, rather, won’t see right.

Then, there is loving a woman. The softness of her skin, the curve of her ear, the way she touches her forehead or bites her lip. The way those lips press against your lips, forbidden, demanded. The understanding you have of her, of yourself, of her. The fact that you’ll still never know this person, because they are another, and yet they are you.

Finally, there is creation. The softness of skin come to life on canvas. The knowledge that you are good enough, but it is not. Adjusting, erasing, repainting, recapturing. Understanding what they want, feeling what you want, feeling her stare, needing to capture it forever, for a moment. The trying.

It is impossible to write a review or paint a portrait or make a film or exist in yourself or love another separate from the rest. Separate from men and patriarchy, from marriage and heterosexuality, from history and trauma. But with her fourth film, Céline Sciamma attempts this very feat, not by ignoring the impossibility, but by embracing it, by making it her subject.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not simply a work of the female gaze, it is not simply a work of lesbian cinema. It is pushing against the boundaries of the screen, frantically, lovingly, desperately, erotically, grasping grasping grasping for a new language, a new way of seeing.

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The story is simple. Marianne is a painter, eager to separate herself from the work of her father, resenting the knowledge that if it weren’t for him she’d be married off somewhere. She is stubborn and committed, a true artist. Her eyes are always burning. Her appetite is ravenous.

Marianne is hired to paint the marriage portrait of Héloïse. A man has already failed to accomplish this task, Héloïse refusing to sit, refusing to show her face. She doesn’t want to be married, certainly not to a man in Milan who she’s never met. Certainly not to a man.

Héloïse’s mother informs Marianne that she must pretend to be a companion for walks. On these walks she can study Héloïse and that is how she’ll paint the portrait.

Marianne studies and she paints, falling in love as an act of creation. Every glance thrills her as an artist, overwhelms her as a potential lover, and pains her as a spy.

It would be an injustice to reveal any more details, to describe scenes or moments, to explain the exact way that everything feels just a little too short, always fleeting, until we settle. There are films that shouldn’t be spoiled because of plot twists, and there are films that shouldn’t be spoiled because the specificity of the images cannot be articulated apart from cinema.

I will not reduce actors Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel to adjectives. To say they are good or great or brilliant is insufficient. Sciamma’s attempt to capture without controlling allows for their performances to feel accomplished in a way that’s separate from the viewer. They are each other’s only audience.

Like so many men before her, Sciamma has created a tribute to a woman she once loved. (She and Haenel were together in real life for years.) Yet, she interrogates this gaze, always questioning her position as author, always questioning the subjectivity of her subject, or who her subject even is, or if she is even the one with the subject.

There is another element to the story, separate from the art, separate from the romance. There is a young maid who is innocent and knowing, who needs help, and affection. It’s as if Sciamma is insisting that the love between women is vast, sexual and platonic and both, romantic and familial and both. There can be a sisterhood, not for all women, but for those who choose it over the easy comforts of patriarchy. We can support each other, care for each other, love each other. We can sing. We can catch on fire. We can protect one another when the fire starts to consume.

“Do all lovers feel like they’ve invented something?” Héloïse asks Marianne between breaths.

The invention of lesbian cinema is a project as old as cinema itself. But every once in a while there is a work of art so specific, so complex, so new in its oldness and old in its newness, that it moves the craft, our craft, to another level of seeing.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one such work of art. Watch it, savor it, live within it. Live within yourself and another. Push beyond it. See, create, exist. Love.


Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens in select cinemas on December 6th.

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is currently working on a short film about Gordo from Lizzie McGuire’s transition (it’s canon) and a million other projects. She also runs social media for I Heart Female Directors. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew has written 62 articles for us.

29 Comments

  1. I saw this a few weeks ago and loved loved LOVED it. I need to watch it again with English subtitles bc I am in Spain right now and not fluent enough to understand every nuance of the subtitles (though I did appreciate knowing when they were addressing each other with the formal “you” and when they switched to the informal “you”–later than I expected) but it was gorgeous and ravishing and perfect. There was one moment of eye contact and observations about each other’s habits that made me crush my popcorn container in my hand. Thank you for this review, Drew! I love the way you talk about movies.

  2. It is SUCH a good film. It is : of women; with women; by women. Harsh and loving throughout.
    Celine Sciamma and Adele Haenel have been making amazing work together, and this is a work of maturity.
    I’m really glad it crossed the borders of France and flew to make its way into the world.

  3. It’s DRAW ME LIKE ONE OF YOUR FRENCH GIRLS but with lesbians, Vivaldi that sounds like we hear it for the first time in our life, beautiful reinterpretation of the myth of Orpheus & Eurydice and literally no men on screen.

    I wouldn’t even ask, what’s not to like – go see it, welcome that pleasure and that pain, every other film now is just “not the <>” and I haven’t felt it since I saw “Carol” in 2015. It’s like a comet, happens only once in a ouple of years.

    [Yes, my friends and family already think I’m obsessed and it’s not only because I bought the tickets for all of them.]

  4. I’ve been waiting to read this perspective ever since seeing the film, I guess feeling this seen by both of the above is how some people feel all the time, amazing.
    I was lucky enough to see it in June at my local film festival and have been thinking about it basically every day since. my tip for anyone seeing it for the first time is to go in as unspoiled as possible and just enjoy, it’s such a rare sensation to see something like this.

  5. I have seen this movie three times now and have never had film impact me this way. It’s like it’s gotten inside of me, in love with it, with the creators. I wish i could go back in time and watch it for the first time. It’s a love story and a very political film as well. Go in unspoiled. But afterwards watch the interviews with Celine Sciamma, Adele Haenel and Noemie Merlant. They add so many layers and hearing them talk about the creative process give me so much joy. Also, Adele Haenel is simply breathtakenly beautiful. When she smiles for the first time in the film, it seared into my brain and heart. Hearing her speak in interviews is just a goddamn delight because she’s so eloquent and has a unique mind. She always talks about how Cate Blanchett in Carol is an inspiration. Imma go ahead and say something controversial: but she’s even better. This film is a cinematic masterpiece, probably the best film I’ve ever seen. Go watch it!

  6. I wanted to share a piece of interview, a few words of Celine Sciamma. It’s relevant to the movie but it’s also just very interesting on its own. So the movie brings the discussion of the history of the women who were artists and painters in those periods but it also brings us to muses :

    “The word muse has been associated with a form of passivity. Fetishized, passive women only inspiring by their presence. But in reality it hides the fact that they were co-creators, the brain in the room.
    Women, painters, writers, etc. have been pushed from Art History but also the status of muse has been reduced to the idea of silent inspiration when it was a part they could play, contributing to the work.”

    • Exactly, this is so distinctive in the movie that the portrait is painted in a creative act of partnership, not any form of inequality, relation of power etc.
      Everything there is so concious – [now something spoilery so please don’t look if you haven’t seen the film] let’s take the dialoge between Marianne and Heloise about women not being allowed to paint nude male models – Sciamma identifies with this prohibition and changes it into a creative strategy for the whole movie, getting rid of men almost at all (or using them as a jumpscare if we use horror categories). A genius, that’s who she is!

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