Portrait of a Lady on Fire
A very large part of being a woman, of being queer, is the anticipation, almost fear, of coming to terms with and being perceived by another. Why does this resonate so strongly among us?
“If we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known,” wrote Tim Kreider once as part of an essay for the New York Times.
The relationship between the artist and the muse is one that has been the subject of many great stories, songs and poems; it is the stuff of legends. It’s been so inherently romanticised, so ingrained into our consciousness’, especially as women, as something beautiful but always so out of reach, because of this fear of perception. It makes this dramatisation all that more reflective, personal even.
“A relationship is about inventing your own language. You’ve got the jokes, you’ve got the songs, you have this anecdote that’s going to make you laugh three years later. It’s this language that you build. That’s what you mourn for when you’re losing someone you love. This language you’re not going to speak with anybody else.”, Sciamma got it right, didn’t she? Héloïse and Marianne steal glances throughout the film in a manner that is almost…understandable; you know how you exchange looks with a close friend whenever (yet another) cishet man goes off on a ‘not all men’ rant? It’s almost like that? Almost, but not quite. There’s something about it, it resonates so powerfully.
Film is dominated by male directors – a mere 10.6% of the directors involved with top hollywood films last year were women, and this is a record high – and so it seems only natural that cinema is polluted by the male gaze, laced heavily with a very distinct form of voyeuristic, predatory intent. It’s something that we’re all too familiar with. Cinema is hardly ever for women. We see men projecting their visions, their fantasies of themselves and everyone else upon the characters that they have created, which is why, when women are portrayed in cinema, when love is portrayed, it feels so out of touch and out of sync with my own vision of love, my vision of myself.
Amidst this mass of feeling unseen, unheard, Sciamma’s films are like coming up for fresh air, as she explores the female gaze through her work — starting with Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014) —tells a story of seeing women, being women, un-noticeable to the gaze of one who doesn’t see women as anything except a character device. Portrait of a Lady on Fire seems at first like a story told through minimalism, the absence elucidating the present, but it is in fact the opposite. The lack of show, the lack of display is what tells us that every action, every moment of the character’s lives is loaded with intention, huge strength, power, a shared consciousness. The movie’s score is the real music of the world, the crackle of the fire, the sound of a hand brushing against wood, the clack of shoes against the floor, the crashing of the waves. Every moment is overflowing with presence and intention.
The film revolves around two women who have lives that are different from each other. They both are aware of the difference in the function of their lives as well, the roles they have to play. The film never has any male characters, yet the role of men, the role of the patriarchal structure is always present and shapes the lives of these young women. This is not something they dwell upon in a tone of self pity, but it’s not feebly accepted either. These are two young women charged with the task of persisting, persisting within a world that only grudgingly allows for them to serve a supposed higher purpose defined by men.
It’s a story about love and emancipation. It is a story of perseverance, reality, and friendship. It shows the lives of women that are structured around the service of men who, quite frankly, seem like they do not deserve them or the effort that is put into making these women seem ‘presentable’ to the men.
It’s a story where women understand the pain of the restricted lives they follow, but also shows how they find joy and make these lives their own.
(The first feminist gesture is to say: “Ok. They’re looking at me. But I’m looking at them.” The act of deciding to look, of deciding that the world is not defined by how people see me, but by how I see them.” – Agnès Varda)
Watching this film, I cannot help but feel at home; safe, warm, it being a film about art and how it’s so personal. It shows art as a conversation, it’s not merely the artist who perceives the subject but also the subject who simultaneously absorbs the artist. From an objective standpoint, Sciamma has done a wonderful job with the narrative and bringing to life the thrill, but also the absolute terror of being perceived. Importantly, this perception is not one sided. “If you look at me, who do I look at?” This question sets Marriane off guard, and sets an important marker in their relationship as viewer and subject (with no specification of who is who), as Héloïse questions the basis of the implied submissiveness of the subject.
Beyond this, however, it is so refreshing- no, comforting- to experience the relationship between women in an honest, raw, and unforced manner. There is no doubt about the sensuality in the relationship between the two lovers, but their relationship is more fleshed out, stronger. It shows the two of them as people. As a viewer, I can feel the undisturbing, unperturbed gaze of the film-maker as they portray a version of love in my language.
The foreshadowing that comes into play when the lovers read the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, the moment when Héloïse and Marianne gasp for one last glimpse of each other, reiterates the sad realisation that they have both always had, even if it took them a while to get to it: they are both meant to live on only in each other’s memories, and perhaps when that is the undertone and background score of their entire relationship, saving the memory is more important than saving the love.
With a film that is so heavily imbued with the theme of art and the artist-lover relationship, I feel my interpretation of this film would be incomplete without my own form of art—music. So, attached for your listening pleasure, here is a playlist that I associate with this film, with the story this tells. These songs don’t necessarily mean something specific, they include from songs that I think would play in the background of certain scenes in my head, songs that remind me of the characters and songs that I simply associate with the scenery and setting here. It encapsulates the experience of watching this film, for me.