Written & Directed by: Céline Sciamma
Winner of last year’s queer palm at Cannes, Portrait of a Lady of Fire creates something new. By using the form of a period piece, Sciamma was able to create something contemporary. Set in the late 1700’s on a remote island, Marianne (Noèmie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel).
While the age of Enlightenment is taking place, women remain tethered by convention whether in painting, servitude or marriage the women of this film find themselves propelled by outside/social forces. For a time, these women are seemingly protected, isolated from the mainland and patriarchal society before being forced to confront the reason their lives have come together in the first place. The women of this film learn to depend on each other, finding a sense of companionship and balance only to have it abruptly end.
Hailed as a post me-to0, LGBTQ and feminist masterpiece, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film most concerned with the artist and the idea of the gaze. This theory can be used a bridge between art as a medium and social theory, integrating politics and art history. While a gaze can be used to confer meaning upon a piece, the relationship of the viewer and the viewed are always in negotiation.
As best stated by [French historian and philosopher] Michel Foucault while studying the function of the gaze in the painting Las Meninas the “observer and the observed take part in a ceaseless exchange. No gaze is stable…subject and object, spectator and model reverse their roles into infinity.” This communication is the exploration of director Céline Sciamma. The relationship between the two main characters blurs until it is unclear who is looking at whom. Through the film, the gaze becomes their mode of interaction. Intimacy and attraction grow as they share in this collaborative act and the painting’s completion serves as tribute.
Héloïse’s journey goes from being an object/the muse to someone who observes the subject and thus becomes the Marianne’s collaborator. This is a really amazing technical performance by Adèle Haenel, which destroys the traditional idea of art as a horizontal relationship to a horizontal one of give and take, or as in painting, layers of alternation.
This film also challenges the assumption that we have progressed as a society as well as in art, or at least that progress happens in a linear fashion. Choosing to place the film in the time of the late 18th century, a time known for a huge rise in female artists who were later censored and removed from art history is a very intentional choice. It is the perfect time to place a critique on the backlash female filmmakers are currently facing. This goes back to the idea of the gaze and one’s in ability to control how one is perceived by others, specifically due to culture and society. As Michel Foucault states “insofar as I am the object of values which come to qualify me without my being able to act on this qualification or even to know it, I am enslaved.”
A truly beautiful and cerebral film that will give you an exciting and new perspective on art and love. It’s a hopeful as well as critical film that offers insight into ideas of identity and personhood.
– Review by Jessie Zumeta
Have you seen Portrait of a Lady On Fire? Well, what did you think?