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Manifesting the female gaze: Celine Sciamma and Portrait of a Lady on Fire

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Nottingham chapter.

Warning: spoilers!

Celine Sciamma rose to international stardom with the release of what has been titled her piece de resistance by various critics, winning the Cannes Film Festival prize for Best Screenplay and the Queer Palm and rocking the world with her unfaltering display of femininity on film. However, her repertoire spans much further than this 18th-century period drama. Sciamma’s directorial career began with her coming-of-age trilogy – three films which all depict the various trials and tribulations which come with adolescence. Following this, Sciamma wrote the screenplay for My Life as a Courgette, a stop-motion animation which tackles the difficult world of children in care, and which also went on to win various prizes. Finally, most recently, Sciamma directed Petite Maman, a story of a young girl coming to terms with her mother’s humanity. Sciamma, throughout her films, brings a gentleness and an understanding to topics which very often go overlooked in media, and are improperly represented by people without an empathetic awareness. She feminises and cares for her characters in a way not often seen in film, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire is no exception.

The film tells the story of a young woman, Heloise, in 18th century France who is betrothed to a man in Milan. Before she is able to marry him, a portrait of her must be sent to him. However, due to the fact that she does not want to marry him – she is only betrothed to him because her sister who was previously supposed to marry him committed suicide – she refuses to pose for her portrait. So, her mother enlists the help of a female portrait artist, Marianne, who is to spend time with Heloise and paint her in secret. The film follows the two women as they experience each other over the course of a couple of weeks, and the slow-burn connection which develops between them. Alongside this, there is a subplot involving the servant of the household, Sophie, who develops a close friendship with the two women when Heloise’s mother is not around.

The cast is made up entirely of female actors, and men take a complete backseat in the film, appearing only as background characters. What’s interesting though is that the main plot and Sophie’s subplot are both driven by men. A man is the reason the portrait of Heloise must be painted, and a man is the reason Sophie experiences an unwanted pregnancy. In a patriarchal society, regardless of how female-focused a narrative is, there is no way to entirely remove men from the equation. The experiences of women in patriarchy cannot be detached from men, and it is at this point that Sciamma is able to drive home through the decentring of men from the narrative, but the recognition of the massive influence they have regardless of their position in the story. This is hammered home by the sonically dramatic final scene, in which Heloise is experiencing her new life with her new husband, despite the erotic and fiery love story she experienced with Marianne for most of the duration of the film – women do not have the power to control their own narrative and these two women are no exception, regardless of the depth and strength of their love for one another. Sciamma does not attempt to romanticise the female patriarchal experience and instead lets her audience grieve for Heloise and Marianne, and for ourselves.

Sciamma’s film is beautiful in many ways. Visually striking, every scene looks like an oil painting, representative of the artistic vision of Marianne and the beauty in the eye of the two women experiencing love and lust in their relationship with one another. Their relationship is also extremely beautiful, in that they are given the space to lust after one another and create an erotic tension, but their sexuality is not foregrounded or fetishised. It is a lesbian love story for the ages, where romance and love take the driver’s seat, but sex and eroticism follow close behind. The film is also beautiful in the way it depicts female friendships. These women disregard their places in society as soon as they are given the space to (when Heloise’s mother, the representative for the classical role of women, leaves), and form solidarity and mutual respect with one another, regardless of their extremely varying places in society. It is unimportant to Heloise and Marianne that Sophie is a mere servant when she needs help aborting her unwanted pregnancy. Sciamma is able to represent the gentle and unconditional love women have for their female friends which transgresses social boundaries and exists through difficulty and discomfort. In centring female voices across the spectrum of society, Sciamma has created a beautiful and touching portrayal of the ways in which women experience each other.

Molly Barton

Nottingham '23

As a 3rd year geography student, I am of course interested in all things environmental, but my #1 passion is film, with a particular interest in all things horror!