Céline Sciamma's period drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, starring Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant, is an answer to the question, "Can an erotic film about two women be made without an omnipresent male gaze?"
The answer is, definitively, yes.
As John Berger says in "Ways of Seeing"—his landmark essay that discusses the images of women in fine art—"the male gaze" refers to the way that women primarily exist in art as an object to be viewed by men. He says, "Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object–and most particularly an object of vision: a sight." But in this film Sciamma brings forth the notion that perhaps the male gaze can be escaped, not just in art but in life, and that maybe shaping a world seen through a female gaze is the way to save it.
Set sometime in the 18th century in a Gothic manor at the French seaside, Portrait of a Lady on Fire explores the relationship between two women: Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter; and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young noblewoman. Héloïse's mother commissions Marianne to paint a portrait of Héloïse to send to her future husband in Milan. Héloïse has refused to pose for previous painters because she doesn't want to be married, so Marianne pretends to merely be her walking companion, observing her in secret and painting her portrait from memory late at night. As if this premise wasn't already romantic enough, as the movie unfolds, the two young women grow more and more intimate with each other, ultimately starting a romantic and sexual relationship.
Héloïse and Marianne on the beach
But this process of falling in love is anything but the all too common (heterosexual) act of possessing one another. Instead, falling in love is shown here as a kind of undressing, a process of learning to see another person holistically and allowing them to see you the same way. There is no courting or formality, no performative gestures of romance, merely two people who are desperate to know and be known.
The Female Gaze Creates Room for True Intimacy
This is symbolized magnificently by the progress Marianne makes on Héloïse's portrait. Her first try is laden with the male gaze, and it's clear she's painted Héloïse in a way that she believed would be pleasing to her future husband, instead of portraying her as she truly sees her. When finally shown the painting, Héloïse objects, demanding to know if that is really how Marianne views her: soft, uncomplicated, and complacent. Soon, as their love affair grows, Marianne paints another portrait, one that reflects the fierceness, complexity, intelligence, and sadness she sees within Héloïse. All in all, it's a portrait that does not display what your average 18th century suitor would see as an "ideal woman," but it's a portrait that burns with truth. It's painted with all the forgiveness, compassion, and surrender of the female gaze that Sciamma works to construct throughout the film.
While the plot sounds simple enough, remarkably, Sciamma builds a world utterly free of masculine influence while still allowing the audience to feel the pressure of the unavoidable impact men have on the women's respective lives, like rain pelting on the window of an otherwise peaceful room. Héloïse's father is mentioned, but he's never seen and rarely discussed. Instead, the household is comprised of Héloïse, Marianne, a maid named Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), and, for a day or two, Héloïse's mother, La Comtesse (Valeria Golino). Marianne's painting career is only made possible because of her father's reputation as a great painter, Héloïse exists to become the wife to a man she has never met, and Sophie is burdened with a pregnancy she does not want and must rid herself of in order to avoid disgrace. Still, these men are not dwelled upon at all: This is not their story.
The majority of the film takes place over only a couple of weeks, but in that brief time the women construct a kind of sanctuary for themselves, ultimately reclaiming many of the things their positions as women in society have stolen from them–most notably, control of their bodies. Without question or moral judgment, Marianne and Héloïse help Sophie to end her pregnancy, returning her body to her. Strikingly, this is not displayed as a reason for grief but as a necessity. In fact, we never see Sophie anything but worried about her impending abortion, and the audience is never asked to judge her decision. It's as if Sciamma is saying, "You may look but you may not judge." Meanwhile, Marianne and Héloïse reclaim their bodies in a different way.
The two women make love to each other for pleasure and connection, not procreation or possession as is often the case in heterosexual sex. And again, none of the women place judgment on this behavior (though it's clear Sophie knows the two have become lovers). In this ephemeral feminine space, nothing and everything is sensual, and the women do not follow a predetermined hetero-normative script for their romance. Sciamma manages to make the armpit seem erotic, or even the cramps of menstruation, seeming to ask her audience why they've defined sensuality so rigidly when the possibilities are so vast.
The Male Gaze Is Rarely Egalitarian
The characters also manage to exist in this liminal space as equals. For instance, Sophie joins in their companionship as a peer, despite the subservient behavior usually expected of a servant. We even see the three women sharing a bed and preparing meals together. It seems Sciamma is pointing out that division, in this case specifically class division (but also the unspoken divisions between people), is primarily a construct of the masculine and that women are able to operate in an egalitarian manner when freed from societal expectation. Indeed, the women drink, they speak freely, they cry without embarrassment or any indication of fear of being perceived as weak; they're loud, they experiment with drugs and intellectual pursuits normally reserved for men, and they generally live within all the chaos and contradiction of femininity that the outside world doesn't allow.
Sophie, Héloïse, and Marianne work together
In a brilliant moment of symbolism, the spell of this feminine haven is only broken when Marianne comes downstairs towards the end of the film to see an unnamed man eating greedily in the kitchen as Sophie waits on him. There is no dialogue at this moment, but it's as if a glass has shattered and woken up the women to their true allotments in life.
Employing the Female Gaze in the Language of Filmmaking
The strength of the realism of this isolated world is in large part created by the language of filmmaking that Sciamma employs. The male gaze does not only exist in portrait painting (as Sciamma comments on throughout the film), but in the medium of film as well. Nearly every movie ever made is heavy with masculinity in some way. Most relevant here is the speed of a traditional film: they're fast-paced, offer many "Wow!" or "Ah HA!" moments, and they tend to feel like races to a satisfying end result. This certainly doesn't mean that masculine modes of filmmaking are inherently bad—on the contrary, the beautiful and layered legacy of Western cinema was founded on the male gaze. But all the same, it's no wonder women struggle to compete in the world of movie making: They're playing a game made for and by a man's point of view.
Instead of engaging with these established methods, Sciamma creates her own cinematic language. The movie burns slowly, and there is no "Ah ha!" moment, only a building sense of significance, like water rising so slowly that you only notice it when it's nearly over your head. The movie never tells you what to think or feel; it merely offers you a peephole into its world. As she told Vulture, "We're trying to create something very, very new. Both the fact that it's naked — I don't know how to say it differently, but it's like, we're not pretending to be something else or somebody else for you to love us. We're just trying to create something new that is revolutionary, but that doesn't have the outfit of a revolution. In this way, it's weak. But it's not weak. Because we strongly believe [in what] we're doing." As Sciamma said, it's a naked movie, naked in the way Berger describes later in his essay: "To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself." The movie is also, as Sciamma said, a revolution.
As much as Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a movie about two women falling in love, it's also a movie about seeing and all the things that usually get in the way of seeing yourself or another person clearly: gender, obligations, possessiveness, family, class, and societal constructs. It's a movie about allowing ourselves small respites from the real world. It's a movie that demands you to reconsider the lens you've been viewing the world through your whole life. It's a movie that asks you if tenderness is, afterall, exactly the kind of strength we need now more than ever.
After filming a particularly stirring scene, Sciamma reportedly turned to her DP and said: "We are saving the world." She just might be right.