Portrait Of A Lady On Fire: A Film By Women, About Women, For Everyone

Portrait of a Lady on Fire invites its viewers into an intimate feminine world
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire: A Film By Women, About Women, For Everyone

To gaze, quite simply, is to look at other people or objects. To be gazed at, on the other hand, is the state of anxiousness that comes with the awareness of being watched. For a while now, the topic of gaze is being studied in the context of power dynamics, where the gazer is usually superior to the object of the gaze. The traditional male gaze has shaped gender politics of visual arts where men are typically the watchers while women are being watched. The idea of women being passive and comfortable being looked at, has been popularized by various art forms that are created with this traditional gaze. Céline Sciamma, in her masterful film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, explores the journey of an artist who is challenged to give up her internalised traditional gaze, for a kinder and more egalitarian feminine gaze.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, set in 18th century France, tells the story of friendship, collaboration and intimacy between three women who spend a few days together; Marianne is appointed to paint a portrait of Héloïse to be sent to her suitor, and the house help Sophie, who has a challenging problem to solve. The story unfolds in Marianne's memory when she is accidentally reminded of her time with Héloïse.

Marianne, as the gazer, presumes herself superior and perceives Héloïse as just an object of her gaze. Her idea of what makes good art is derived from patriarchal rules of the role of a model in creating a painting. These rules however, are unable to help her bring out the true essence of Héloïse. Through Marianne and Héloïse's journey of creating their portrait, Sciamma emphasizes how true collaboration and equality between an artist and the model can bring out a deeply personal and an honest piece of art. The film has many pockets of silence and mostly brief dialogues which draw the viewer's attention to the wonderful dance of who is looking and who is being looked at, between Marianne and Héloïse.

In her series of lectures and the 1929 book A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf talks about lack of stories that reveal what women are like in the company of each other when men are not around. She talks about how most literature until that time saw women only in their relation to men and how rarely women are described as simply liking each other. Around the mid point in Portrait of a Lady on Fire there is a scene where the three women, comfortable in the company of each other, are doing their own activities. There is no dialogue or music, and the camera stays with these characters at medium shot for around a minute.

A male character appears for barely two scenes in this two hour film, and he is never the subject of discussion between our leads. The film creates an all women's world to effectively tell a story about women, their relation with each other, and their circumstances. Through such cinematic choices Sciamma tells a potent feminist story that surely makes Woolf proud in her grave, and women worldwide feel well represented.

Sciamma, who has also written the screenplay, describes her writing process as writing each scene as a unit of desire; writing only the scenes that she truly desires in the movie, and omitting the scenes that are supposed to only move the plot forward. She argues that this results in finding cinematic solutions to take the movie from one truly desired scene to the next. The result of her approach is a novel and short (translated) screenplay with explicit editing and framing details. Sciamma, in her interviews also talks about her screenplay having only subjects, and no objects. As a result, while the women in the film come from different backgrounds and classes, there is equality in the treatment of these women.

The film doesn't have any character whose sole purpose is to help the hero achieve her goal; each character has her own motives, her own desires. Drama is created not by making the characters compete with each other, instead initially by cleverly withholding key information from one of the characters, and later through the societal constraints on these women who have limited time to live the utopian version of their lives. There is also a delightful foreshadowing through the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, and its interpretation by our women that neatly ties up the end of their story.

Since the film is about art and paintings, cinematographer Claire Mathon captures every scene as a painting in itself. The green and red of Héloïse and Marianne's dresses and the blue walls in the background make for a pleasing color palette. The interior scenes are brightly lit, as an artist studio would be, during the day, and the night scenes are lit to convey the warmth of candles and fire. Mathon makes the actresses look like subjects of a series of digital portraits created for the movie. The film also boasts strong performances by the entire cast. Adèle Haenel plays Héloïse as a memory of a person. Haenel's Héloïse is stiff and distant when viewed by Marianne as an object, and evolves to be open and playful as Marianne starts viewing her as a subject. There is an ease in Noémie Merlant's (Marianne) body language as a confident and proud painter, and together Haenel and Merlant create memorable chemistry on screen.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire invites its viewers into an intimate feminine world. It is a profoundly political film that makes its stance impactful through powerful storytelling. The film is a delight for cinema lovers, with something new to be discovered with every viewing.

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