“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” So goes John Berger’s description of the male gaze in the seminal Ways of Seeing. In recent years, the female gaze has been applied occasionally to men — in films such as Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, for example — but the male gaze pervades in representations of women. In part, this is because female directors find it so hard to secure funding, especially for female-centred projects, and in part is because the majority of established female directors are heterosexual. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, then, in spite of its fairly traditional structure, is something rare and different — a lesbian love story directed by a lesbian (the incredible Céline Sciamma), which exists as separately as possible from the world of masculinity.
Berger also says the following: “The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female.” Indeed, our protagonist Marianne’s (Noémie Merlant) original purpose is to replicate the male gaze — she is hired to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) to be sent to her betrothed, far away in Milan. Since Héloïse rejects the match, Marianne must watch her while acting as her companion, only able to paint in secret. When Marianne finally divulges her true purpose, Héloïse says, “that explains your looks”, and perhaps it does, initially. But attention leads to love, and love leads to attention; once she falls for Héloïse, Marianne destroys what she has created under that guise, and begins again, both lengthening their time together and allowing her to produce a work that truly reflects who Héloïse is.
Marianne and Héloïse initially take up the traditional artist and muse relationship, but while Marianne has been watching Héloïse, Héloïse has been watching Marianne — she knows Marianne as well as Marianne knows her, and we see that the desire flowing between these women is reflective and equal. Héloïse eventually becomes a collaborator of Marianne’s as much as her muse. In one of the most arresting sequences of the film, she re-stages a previous scene within the studio and asks Marianne to paint it — taking up the position of director to Marianne’s cinematographer.
Perhaps this film is partly a reflection of Adèle Haenel and Céline Sciamma’s relationship off-screen — Haenel has led half of Sciamma’s films, and they dated for four years, breaking up shortly before making Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Certainly, this film belongs to Haenel — as Marianne focuses on Héloïse, so does the camera, and we fall for Héloïse along with her. Haenel’s performance is all in her microexpressions — a little frown, a slight upturn in the corners of her mouth. When she finally properly smiles, it’s like watching the sun come out. Noémie Merlant is also remarkable as Marianne — without the contrast of her openness and expressiveness, Haenel might simply seem moody, rather than mysterious.
The family servant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), is close with both Marianne and Héloïse — Marianne acts as the bridge, being both an employee of the household and Héloïse’s companion, but a real friendship is built between the three women. In this house, on this island, these women have made a kind of matriarchal utopia for themselves. This film is set around a hundred years prior to the French Revolution, but these women are experiencing something of that revolutionary spirit — liberté, egalité, sororité, perhaps. Still, there’s never any chance that Marianne and Héloïse’s story might have a traditionally happy ending — the outside world must eventually find its way in, and it would be impossible for them to live openly as lovers in their time.
The thesis of the film, for me, is “don’t regret, remember” — we follow their romance from its beginning to its inevitable end, but we must live in the memory instead of wallowing in the loss. Both women take with them parts of the other; in the epilogue, Marianne comes across little signs from Héloïse, their love echoing through their lives. The final, stunning scene is one of the most powerful endings to a film I’ve ever seen, reminiscent of both Call Me By Your Name and The Age of Innocence — two other tales of doomed love — but for me, even more affecting.