Heather O. Petrocelli shares the cathartic and transformative power of the film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Céline Sciamma.
In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) tells Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) that it’s not easy to relate music. In fact, it is not easy to relate any of the arts, especially the enveloping cinematic experience and in particular the range of emotions one can feel when watching a film. A film spectator can have the wondrous rush of emotions with the first-time meeting, feel the emotional shifts in and deepening of a relationship to a film with each repeated encounter, and be haunted by the memories that linger well after parting. I have deeply lived all of those stages since Portrait utterly destabilized me after seeing it for the first time in a theatre over a month ago. This film is an ultimate filmic experience—in fact, a manifesto—and any attempt at descriptives detract from its purpose. Director Céline Sciamma’s masterpiece no longer needs narrative deconstructing, as plenty of voices have offered “reviews” and recountings of the film. What deserves wider attention is a lesbian experience of this film.
In the liminal space of Portrait’s narrative and the darkened theatre/home, lesbians are finally freed from the male gaze and its concomitant patriarchal constraints. Sciamma employs Gothic symbolism to accentuate those shackles, from the faded drafty mansion on a windswept coast to the lesbian spectre of doomed love, from the omnipresent haunting of the patriarchy to the “witch-like coven” of women gathering around a bonfire. We share time with other women as they love, laugh, cry, cook, sing, create, abort, play, drink, experiment, solve, and debate. We witness Héloïse shift from object to subject. We watch Marianne destroy the male gaze, both metaphorically and literally as she unlearns the patriarchal “rules, conventions, ideas” of art. We experience with them a love story founded on intellectual, emotional, and physical equality. We savor the deep crevices of simple, slow, shared time. We witness the redefinition of egalitarian friendships between an aristocrat, an artist, and an attendant outside of patriarchal control. We see two adult women in love without the usual conflicts at the center of queer films: angsty adolescence, coming out, unrequited love, and/or death.
(Portrait of a Lady on Fire, theatrical release poster, Pyramide Films)
Sciamma brilliantly and precisely choreographs her filmic language to quietly and intimately revolutionize cinema. A queer woman makes a film starring a queer woman for queer women that centers the experience of women in every frame. (As a small few other filmmakers did before her.) While people who are not queer “womans” appreciated (or even loved) Portrait, this film was not made for them. It is ours and others are the invited guests. It is truly and uniquely for lesbians. I have spent a lifetime loving films made by straight cis white men for straight cis white men. I intellectually know that this had to have had a damaging effect on me psychologically, because these films did not love or even witness me back. However, luckily, us queers have a secret weapon that many non-queers don’t even realize exists: we can instantaneously reframe any story and mentally recreate it so that it tells us our story. This is an important tool of self-preservation and survival queers have mastered. Yet, finally, with Portrait I did not need to employ this tool once—possibly for the first time in my life. And that, in and of itself, is revolutionary.
Portrait is watershed in my life in part because of how greatly film has defined my path since I was a young queer child. My queerness has always been a defining aspect of who I am, and it has been both my greatest joy and greatest source of suffering. Films, though, were my outlet to another world, another way of understanding, of knowing, of being that helped me, an isolated queer kid, feel as though I could belong in or, conversely, escape this world. Me and film were best friends. While that relationship to film is not exclusive to young queer kids, I feel a deep kinship to film and cannot separate my queerness nor my life from it. As I grew older, I received my bachelor’s degree in cinema studies and my master’s degree focused on the development of film education in the United States. And, currently, I am completing a doctoral degree focused on film, specifically on queers’ relationship to horror film. Those details are salient because I know film; I’ve spent decades studying film, I’ve made films, and I’ve seen well over 10,000 films from around the world. But Portrait is the ONE, THE film that has forever altered my relationship with film; I will never see film (the medium and the individual artifacts) the same way again. Sciamma, the cinematic architect, has unveiled this new landscape, has shown me an existence I only ever dreamed of before.
Portrait is the ONE, THE film that has forever altered my relationship with film; I will never see film (the medium and the individual artifacts) the same way again.
While Sciamma’s name holds “ownership” of Portrait, she worked in collaboration with many women with whom she actively co-created to bring this art to life. She creates space for the stellar performances by Merlant and Haenel, of Luàna Bajrami and Valeria Golino, provides a platform for the sumptuous visuals from cinematographer Claire Mathon, and foregrounds the artistic process of Hélène Delmaire. Likewise, a core theme of the film narrative is artistic collaboration and co-creation, which Sciamma and her majority-female creative team demonstrated through their collective creation of Portrait. This film lives its own manifesto; it is a collaborative story about the love of art and the art of love. This film transgresses the boundaries of love and art to deliver a new message, a new vision to queer women. Portrait restores the forgotten, neglected, and erased histories of working women, lesbians, and women artists, as well as dismantles how we have been trained to engage with a film. Our experience mirrors that of Marianne, who had to be retrained from “seeing” and representing her art through a patriarchal lens. When Héloïse rejects the first portrait of her that Marianne had surreptitiously painted and initially defended with the male-dominant art “conventions,” she says of the painting: “The fact it isn’t close to me, that I can understand. But I find it sad it isn’t close to you.” In its quietly powerful way, Portrait asks us to question why we have given so much time to art that is not ‘close to us’ and does not speak to us.
Portrait is unabashedly direct in how it speaks to us. This self-reflexive film instructs us exactly how to interact with it, even from its opening lines: “First, my contours. The outline. Not too fast. Take time to look at me.” Artist Marianne is instructing her art students on how to paint a portrait whilst Sciamma is instructing her viewers on how to view this film. Sciamma uses electric silences, narrative space, and measured pacing to invite us into the shared filmic languages of love and art. Portrait focuses on the process of art (both within and outside of the filmic frame) and the reception and use of art in our individual lives. Portrait is a film that seeks to be understood and, conversely, slowly unveils its own understanding of us. Portrait prioritizes the intimate—platonic, emotional, physical, sexual, artistic, intellectual—over the explicit. It gives us time to slowly breathe in a new way of being—and to understand the collaborative nature of experiencing a film. Just as the collaborative creation between Marianne and Héloïse changes both women, the collaborative experience of watching Portrait changes both us and the film. Film is a dynamic art form; it depends on light and movement for existence, and, significantly, it depends on a “live” audience to create its meaning—a meaning that is as idiosyncratic as the audiences themselves. Even with individual responses to Portrait, lesbians share an emotional bond, a bond forged in a “darkened theatre,” as we silently witness a new kind of visibility.
(Portrait of a Lady on Fire; photo: Pyramide Films)
With the final line of the film, “She didn’t see me,” Sciamma releases us from the film’s simultaneous narrative of a love story between two women and the memory of that love by closing the door to the film’s narrative and opening the audience to simply be in this powerful moment. She offers us a way to insert ourselves into this meticulously crafted and expertly performed emotional moment. In the gutting and wrenching ending, our emotions mirror those of Héloïse. We emote as a collective audience as Haenel emotes as Héloïse. We recognize, we mourn, we regret, we remember, and, most importantly, we are emancipated. We exist in the layers of cinema in this perfect moment. We feel the journey of love between Marianne and Héloïse; we feel the offscreen love shared between Sciamma and Haenel; and we feel our own queer love stories past, present, and future. We reflect on the haunting of our own loves. Sciamma then silently implores us to reflect on art. To reflect on cinema itself. To reflect on performance. To reflect. It is an emotional gut punch on all levels, and it leaves one entirely stunned. As the credits begin to roll in silence, we, too, are silent, still feeling, still enmeshed in the cinematic experience. We are momentarily one with the emotion invoked by the power of film. And then it lingers, the memory of that experience leaving an imprint and impact that cannot be shaken away.
Sciamma and her collaborators crafted an exquisite film about looking, observing, longing, and desire that assuredly is through a female gaze, that is confidently constructed within a feminist framework. The desire between Marianne and Héloïse is central, underscoring our desire for more stories by queer women about queer women for queer women. Its very existence demands cinematic representation for all ‘others’ left out of the dominant straight cis white male cinematic narratives. As their relationship takes root, Marianne says to Héloïse “I understand you.” With each frame, with each performance, with each filmic decision, Sciamma and her co-creators tell us that they understand us. Portrait understands my pain, my anger, my longing, my desire, my hope, my love. Never before have I felt so seen, so known, and so understood by a film.