Film Features

"Portrait of a Lady on Fire" and the Creation of the Female Gaze

Sciamma seems to ask her audience why they've defined sensuality so rigidly when the possibilities are so vast.

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.

"Portrait of a Lady on Fire" H\u00e9lo\u00efse and Marianne on the beach 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.

portrait of a lady on fire sophie 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.

H\u00e9lo\u00efse and Marianne reunite

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.


Nazi-Chic: The Aesthetics of Fascism

Let's take a look at Nazi-inspired fashion.

Villains always have the best outfits.

From Darth Vader's polished black space armor to The Joker's snazzy purple suit, bad guys always seem to show up their protagonists in the fashion department.

Way more handsome than Batman.

But could there possibly be a real world equivalent to the type of over-the-top villain fashion often found in fiction? It would have to be sleek and imposing, austere and dangerous. Probably black.

Maybe it's him. Maybe it's fascist ideology.

Oh, right.

Let's call a spade a spade. From an aesthetic standpoint, the Nazi SS outfit is very well-designed. The long coat tied around the waist with a buckle portrays a slim, sturdy visage. The leather boots and matching cap look harsh and powerful. The emblem placements on the lapel naturally suggest rank and authority. And the red armband lends a splash of color to what would otherwise be a dark monotone. If the Nazi uniform wasn't so closely tied with the atrocities they committed during WWII, it wouldn't seem out of place at Fashion Week. Perhaps not too surprising, considering many of the uniforms were made by Hugo Boss.

Pictured: A real thing Hugo Boss did.

Of course, today, Nazi uniform aesthetics are inseparable from the human suffering doled out by their wearers. In most circles of civilized society, that's more than enough reason to avoid the garb in any and all fashion choices. But for some, that taboo isn't a hindrance at all–if anything, it's an added benefit.

As a result, we have Nazi chic, a fashion trend centered around the SS uniform and related Nazi imagery.

History of Nazi Chic

For the most part, Nazi chic is not characterized by Nazi sympathy. Rather, Nazi chic tends to be associated with counterculture movements that view the use of its taboo imagery as a form of shock value, and ironically, anti-authoritarianism.

The movement came to prominence in the British punk scene during the mid-1970s, with bands like the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie and the Banshees displaying swastikas on their attire alongside other provocative imagery.

Very rotten, Johnny.

Around this time, a film genre known as Nazisploitation also came to prominence amongst underground movie buffs. A subgenre of exploitation and sexploitation films, Naziploitation movies skewed towards D-grade fare, characterized by graphic sex scenes, violence, and gore. Plots typically surrounded female prisoners in concentration camps, subject to the sexual whims of evil SS officers, who eventually escaped and got their revenge. However, the most famous Nazisploitation film, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, flipped the genders.

The dorm room poster that will ensure you never get laid.

Ilsa was a female SS officer and the victims were men. She spent much of the movie wearing her Nazi uniform in various states, sexually abusing men all the while. As such, Ilsa played into dominatrix fantasies. The movie was a hit on the grindhouse circuit, inspiring multiple sequels and knock-offs and solidifying Nazi aesthetics as a part of the BDSM scene.

Since then, Nazi chic fashion has been employed by various artists, from Madonna to Marilyn Manson to Lady Gaga, and has shown up in all sorts of places from leather clubs to character designs in video games and anime.

Lady Gaga looking SS-uper.

Nazi Chic in Asia

Nazi chic has taken on a life of its own in Asia. And unlike Western Nazi chic, which recognizes Nazism as taboo, Asian Nazi chic seems entirely detached from any underlying ideology.

A large part of this likely has to do with the way that Holocaust education differs across cultures. In the West, we learn about the Holocaust in the context of the Nazis committing horrific crimes against humanity that affected many of our own families. The Holocaust is presented as personal and closer to our current era than we might like to think. It is something we should "never forget." Whereas in Asia, where effects of the Holocaust weren't as prominent, it's simply another aspect of WWII which, in and of itself, was just another large war. In other words, Nazi regalia in Asia might be viewed as simply another historical military outfit, albeit a particularly stylish one.

In Japan, which was much more involved with WWII than any other Asian country, Nazi chic is usually (but not always) reserved for villainous representations.


That being said, J-Pop groups like Keyakizaka46 have publicly worn Nazi chic too, and the phenomena isn't limited to Japan.

In South Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand, Nazi imagery has shown up in various elements of youth culture, completely void of any moral context. For instance, in Indonesia, a Hitler-themed fried chicken restaurant opened in 2013. And in Korea, K-Pop groups like BTS and Pritz have been called out for propagating Nazi chic fashion. Usually such incidents are followed by public apologies, but the lack of historical understanding makes everything ring hollow.


So the question then: is Nazi chic a bad thing?

The answer is not so black and white.

On one hand, seeing Nazi chic on the fashion scene may dredge up painful memories for Holocaust survivors and those whose family histories were tainted. In this light, wearing Nazi-inspired garb, regardless of intent, seems disrespectful and antagonistic. Worse than that, it doesn't even seem like a slight against authority so much as a dig at actual victims of genocide.

But on the other hand, considering the fact that even the youngest people who were alive during WWII are edging 80, "forgetting the Holocaust" is a distinct possibility for younger generations. In that regard, perhaps anything that draws attention to what happened, even if it's simply through the lens of "this outfit should be seen as offensive," might not be entirely bad. This, compounded by the fact that Nazi chic is not commonly associated with actual Nazi or nationalistic sentiments, might be enough to sway some people–not necessarily to wear, like, or even appreciate its aesthetics, but rather to understand its place within counterculture.

Ultimately, one's views on Nazi chic likely come down to their own personal taste and sensibilities. For some, Nazi chic is just a style, an aesthetic preference for something that happens to be mired in historical horror. For others, the shadow of atrocity simply hangs too strong.


Natalie Portman Had the Perfect Response to Rose McGowan's Criticism

Rose McGowan had harsh words for Natalie Portman this week, but Portman channeled the drama into a message of solidarity

Rose McGowan came at Natalie Portman hard on Wednesday, saying that her Oscar's dress was "deeply offensive."

The dress in question featured a Dior cape that had been specially embroidered with the names of prominent female directors who didn't receive nominations that many people feel they deserve. The names included Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers), Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), Greta Gerwig (Little Women), Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), Melina Matsoukas (Queen & Slim), and Lulu Wang (The Farewell).

Calling out the Academy for overlooking female talent has been a popular theme this year, from Issa Rae's "Congratulations to those men," while announcing the nominations, to Chris Rock and Steve Martin's onstage joke that there's something missing—va*inas. All of which could be seen as callbacks to Natalie Portman's 2018 comments at the Golden Globes, when she introduced the directing category by saying, "here are the all-male nominees."

Natalie Portman at the Golden Globes

But apparently this sort of "activism" does not exactly impress Rose McGowan—at least not on its own. It's understandable that McGowan—whose 2018 memoir Brave detailed her experiences of sexual assault at the hands of Harvey Weinstein and others—would have some strong opinions on how to fight back. She attributes the decline of her acting career to her efforts to resist Weinstein's attacks—after he (allegedly) raped her in a hotel room in 1997.

She also names several other women whom she claims were similarly punished and is working on a follow-up memoir, Trust, about learning to move forward. She has championed the #MeToo movement and made it her mission to change the toxic misogyny within Hollywood—that uses and abuses and discards talented young women. In that light, her problem with Portman's fashion choice was not so much with the cape itself, but with Portman failing to back up the sentiment in her professional life.

In a post on Facebook, McGowan made her point clear, accusing Portman of being "an actress acting the part of someone who cares." She decried the idea that members of the media would refer to such a superficial expression of solidarity as "bravery" and addressed Natalie directly, saying, "Natalie, you have worked with two female directors in your very long career-one of them was you. You have a production company that has hired exactly one female director- you… You are the problem. Lip service is the problem. Fake support of other women is the problem."

Rose McGowan Rankin

While McGowan's claim overlooked some shorts and anthology movies, others have noted that of the seven feature-length films that Portman's production company, Handsomecharlie, has been involved in, only Portman's own directorial debut, 2015's A Tale of Love and Darkness, was directed solely by a woman. That paints a pretty clear picture of a problem, and it would obviously be hard for Portman to deny it. Fortunately, she didn't. She didn't go on the attack or get defensive. She came out with a statement on Thursday striking a tone of hope and solidarity.

She started out by agreeing with much of McGowan's criticism, saying, "I agree with Ms. McGowan that it is inaccurate to call me 'brave' for wearing a garment with women's names on it. Brave is a term I more strongly associate with actions like those of the women who have been testifying against Harvey Weinstein the last few weeks, under incredible pressure." She then went on to acknowledge that she hasn't worked with as many female directors as she would like, while also calling out systemic issues that prevent female-helmed projects from getting made and taking the opportunity to name check a host of talented female directors who deserve more work:

"In my long career, I've only gotten the chance to work with female directors a few times—I've made shorts, commercials, music videos and features with Marya Cohen, Mira Nair, Rebecca Zlotowski, Anna Rose Holmer, Sofia Coppola, Shirin Neshat and myself. Unfortunately, the unmade films I have tried to make are a ghost history… I have had the experience a few times of helping get female directors hired on projects which they were then forced out of because of the conditions they faced at work… So I want to say, I have tried, and I will keep trying. While I have not yet been successful, I am hopeful that we are stepping into a new day."

Natalie Portman We Should All Be Feminists A pregnant Natalie Portman speaking at the Women's March 2017

While McGowan's anger is understandable, Portman handled the situation perfectly. She took the energy of that discontent and the criticism and channeled it toward opening the conversation to the larger issues that prevent female directors from getting work—issues that one small production company can only do so much to address. With luck maybe this conversation will begin to push Hollywood institutions to rethink the sexist calculus that robs so many talented women of work.