Portrait of a Lady on Fire Embraces the Power of the Female Gaze

December 2, 2019 | By Xandie Kuenning

French director Céline Sciamma's latest film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, winner of Best Screenplay and the Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, premiered at Independent Film Festival Boston’s Fall Focus mini-fest at the Brattle Theatre on Nov. 3. An aesthetically pleasing film focused on female relationships, it is a stunning addition to both women’s cinema and queer cinema.


Photo Courtesy of Pyramide Films

The majority of the film takes place on an isolated island in Brittany, France in 1770, where Marianne (Noémie Merlant) — standing in for the generations of female artists who have been ignored by history — is commissioned to create the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Forced to leave the convent following her sister’s suicide, Héloïse is a reluctant bride-to-be and has refused to pose for prior artists. Marianne, pretending to be Héloïse’s walking companion, is tasked with observing her subject by day and secretly painting her portrait by night. As the two women spend more time together during the last days of Héloïse’s freedom, the attraction between them grows. 


While the romance between Marianne and Héloïse is the main focus of the film, Sciamma also adds an important subplot regarding the maid Sophie (Luana Bajrami), who is attempting to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. When Héloïse’s mother, the Countess (Valeria Golino), leaves for five days, allowing Marianne and Héloïse to get more intimate with each other, Sophie decides to get an abortion. Her decision results in two of the most powerful scenes in the film. The first occurs when Sophie takes Marianne and Héloïse to a nightly bonfire meeting. After talking for a bit, the women begin to sing a haunting a capella melody that climaxes when Héloïse’s dress catches on fire. The entire scene screams of witchcraft, which many now see as a way women found power in a patriarchal society.


The second powerful moment occurs a few days later, when a woman, previously seen at the bonfire, performs the abortion for Sophie. In an emotional scene that reflects the current controversy surrounding abortion, Sophie is shown getting rid of her pregnancy while at the same time gaining comfort from holding the hand of a baby lying on the bed next to her. 


Photo Courtesy of Pyramide Films

There is no villain in this film, other than the more abstract male oppression experienced by every woman. While the Countess may be arranging her daughter’s unwanted marriage to a man from Milan, she is a victim as well — born in Milan, she simply wants to return home after 20 years and arranging this marriage is the only way she can. Born into an upper-class family, Héloïse and her sister have only two options: enter the convent or get married. By committing suicide, Héloïse’s sister escapes her fate, but in doing so, seals Héloïse’s. While Marianne has more freedom, she too does not escape unscathed. The only way her paintings can grace the walls of museums is by pretending they are her father’s. Finally there is Sophie, who must make a decision about her pregnancy alone. There is solidarity between all of the women that transcends class boundaries.


In the film’s press kit, Sciamma explained that she wanted to show that women existed as emotional, intelligent beings who had desires, even if their world forbid such things. In her research, she saw that women’s bodies were only allowed to become their own when alone and that she “wanted to return their friendships and questions to them, their attitudes, their humour, their desire to run.”

With its slow pacing, the film almost feels like a novel, or a piece of artwork. Throughout the film, the cinematography pushes the audience to observe the film in the same way Marianne watches Héloïse. In each shot, the camera caresses the object of its focus like a lover. However, unlike many Western films, none of the shots are meant to be titillating. What comes from this is a greater connection between the audience and the characters shown on-screen.

Women’s stories throughout history have always come second in patriarchal societies. By filming a period romance that subverses the traditional ideas of historical women, Sciamma has created a new standard for representation in film. Portrait of a Lady on Fire will be released in select US theaters starting Dec. 9.