Any views expressed within media held on this service are those of the contributors, should not be taken as approved or endorsed by the University, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University in respect of any particular issue.
Celine Sciamma’s Multi-Sensory Gaze

Celine Sciamma’s Multi-Sensory Gaze


This issue’s theme, The Gaze, can lead to a strong binary association in our minds – the gaze, as a concept, is in large majority discussed as either male or female. Another universally available connotation with the term is its dependence on the visual. The Gaze, naturally, has to do with seeing, looking, observing.

In cinema, the concept opens discussions about filmmakers’ ways of seeing – and by extension, the culture they represent and communicate through their work. But is the visual the only facet of The Gaze? Could the other senses play a part in how the reality of a  film is represented? Céline Sciamma’s particular brand of gaze – which is female in several ways discussed later in this article – shows that this concept is not as narrow as we could think.


The female gaze, although often mentioned in both popular and academic writing, remains a term that is under-defined due to its inherently fluid nature. As a concept, it not only functions as the antithesis to the traditional male gaze, but also exists on a large spectrum where it can be adopted by any number of voices in any number of ways.  Céline Sciamma, the director of female-centric features such as Tomboy (2011), Girlhood (Bande de Filles, 2014), and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, 2019), is aware of this difficulty in defining the female gaze. In an interview for Cinéaste, she concluded that “it is easier to talk about the male gaze,” and that “[t]he female gaze is a departure from that” (Garcia, 2019, p. 10). Being female, Sciamma claims, “does not mean that you automatically have a female gaze.” Instead, it is the conscious choices of the filmmaker that paves the way to what she calls a “revolutionary gaze.” To achieve it, Sciamma says, “[y]ou have to deconstruct and learn to invent” (p. 10). As a director, Sciamma employs an inventive style, deconstructing traditional narratives and inventing ways in which to communicate her protagonists’ experiential being. 


A key element of her style is present with her depictions of her protagonists. Instead of presenting goal-oriented protagonists, she presents them as female bodies, subjects in process of becoming, in accordance with Lisa French’s definition of the female gaze, in which she claims that its “key marker […] is the communication or expression of female subjectivity” (p. 10). In Sciamma’s films this female subjectivity is communicated and expressed through the experiential nature of Sciamma’s style, namely its visual and aural components. 


The love story in her period feature Portrait of a Lady on Fire (from now on, Portrait), does not share the trajectory expected from a romantic narrative. As Sciamma said in an interview, she “wanted to portray a love story that is […] about being with another person” (Garcia, 2019, p. 11). The love story is not about finding the happily ever after but instead about simply being. This focus on being gives the film its rambling quality and is where the narrative and cinematic style meet, thanks to Sciamma’s emphasis on female gaze: further defined by French (2018) as “a gaze shaped by a female ‘look’, voice and perspective – the subjective experience or perspective of someone who lives in a female body” (p. 10). The gaze therefore is not only dependent on the visual but also on the voice – metaphorical, seen in the themes and representation or literal, communicated through the sound, made all the more impactful in Portrait due to the lack of a non-diegetic soundtrack. French’s emphasis on the body also rings true in Sciamma’s Portrait, which always uses the body as the meeting ground between the film and the character’s inner world. Looking at Sciamma’s Portrait, it is only natural to add the category of aural to the established characteristic of male versus female visual gaze.


Sciamma’s films communicate the subject’s bodily experience through the sensory channels they share with the audience. This means that Sciamma’s female gaze not only works to show the experience and convey it, but also to make it more accessible by the way that experience is being conveyed. It is this experiential, and as Katherina Lindner names it, “sensorial envelopment” (p. 206, 2018) where the audience meets the protagonist – and their body.  


Sciamma points out what she deems as the two tentpoles of (her) female gaze, saying that it is “mostly about sharing the experience of the character and having a very active gaze because when women are objectified, the gaze is reactive” (Garcia, 2019, p. 10). The female gaze according to Sciamma therefore is inseparable from the actual, active gaze, which in Portrait becomes the means of establishing the two women’s equality, as it is inseparable from sharing the characters’ experience. Before the gaze can become universally active, however, it is only employed by Marianne (Noémie Merlant) while she secretly works on Héloïse’s (Adèle Haenel) portrait. 


When they meet for the first time, Marianne and the camera follow Héloïse on a walk. Both the film and the painter piece together Héloïse’s appearance in stages – the ear, the back, the hair, the eyes. She only becomes complete when she chooses to, facing Marianne and the camera with a direct, startlingly blue gaze. The delay only makes the returned, direct gaze more direct. Héloïse, therefore, at the very first opportunity at being observed by Marianne, returns the gaze straightforwardly, asserting that from now on her gaze will be decidedly active. Here and throughout the film the active gaze is a means to establish the characters’ equality between themselves as well as the audience, gesturing that they are not mere objects but active subjects.  

This equality found in the returned, active gaze is even made explicit by Héloïse in a scene when she poses and explains to Marianne that just as she is observed as the model, her view of the painter is equally as direct. Her piercing gaze challenges not only Marianne, but also the audience. She is no muse, no object of anybody’s gaze. Sciamma points this out, adding that not only “there is no muse”, but there also is “no fetishized, silent woman in the room” (Macnab, 2019; emphasis mine), describing not only Héloïse’s active gaze but also her voice and agency over the sound and therefore the space.  


Other than the literal gaze, Sciamma also mentions sharing the experience as an important component of the female gaze in her films (Garcia, 2019). In addition to being equal, as established by the active gaze, the experiential – which is heavily dependent on the sound design – brings the film closer to the body, and therefore the subjective experience of the characters. Paying attention to the scene of their first meeting, the ubiquitous, immersive sound of the surroundings poses a contrast to the fragmentary visuals. On their walk, their figures become enveloped by the misty light outside, lacking any shape or form. The soundscape consists of the sound of the wind and leaves rustling, accompanied by the sound of footsteps. More than a physical landscape they enter a soundscape, especially immersive for being wholly diegetic and accompanied by sparse visuals, and without the accompaniment of a non-diegetic score. The sound changes with the landscape – the pebbles give way to grass, the silence of the mist is forgotten in the sweeping wind and violent hum of the sea. 


Once Héloïse stops atop the cliff edge to finally look back, the sound of her and Marianne’s breathing join the soundtrack and, together with the sound of their footsteps, rooting their presence within the aurally rich landscape, their bodies being inseparable parts of it. As if to affirm this, all sounds other than that of the sea and the wind momentarily disappear when the pair share the frame for the first time and exchange looks. The sound in the scene therefore continually helps to anchor their bodies in relation to the landscape and its natural elements as well as in relation to each other. Its appeal to the senses of the characters and the audience alike makes the protagonist’s bodily experience accessible.


Within the narrative the returned looks establish equality between the characters, but it is the sound, the act of hearing and later, more importantly, the critical use of diegetic music, that allows for the characters’ real connection to be established. It roots their bodies in the landscape but also in relation to each other and the audience. 

Sciamma’s use of sound brings the audience closer to the protagonists and communicates their subjective experience from a point of physical closeness that the visual alone would not achieve. The sound helps to root the characters in the landscape and, through the shared soundscape, affirms their equality. The aural component of Sciamma’s version of the gaze is what makes it experiential and truly felt by the audience – the female subjectivity communicated not only through visuals, but importantly also through sound. This makes Sciamma’s female gaze truly experiential, and multisensory. 




French, L. (2018). Women in the Director’s Chair: The ‘Female Gaze’ in Documentary Film.  In Female Authorship and the Documentary Image: Theory, Practice and Aesthetics (pp. 9-19). Edinburgh University Press. 

Garcia, M. (2019). Deconstructing the Filmmaker’s Gaze: An Interview with Celine Sciamma.  Cinéaste, 45(1), pp. 8-55. 

Lindner, K. (2018). “Céline Sciamma’s “Queer” Cinema: Affirming Gestures of Refusal in Tomboy and Girlhood”. In Film bodies: queer feminist encounters with gender and sexuality in cinema (pp. 194-245). I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd. 

Macnab, G. (2019). ‘Portrait Of A Lady On Fire’ director Céline Sciamma: “Cinema is a very misogynistic world”. Screen International. 

Written for The Film Dispatch by Slavomira Nemcikova





Report this page

To report inappropriate content on this page, please use the form below. Upon receiving your report, we will be in touch as per the Take Down Policy of the service.

Please note that personal data collected through this form is used and stored for the purposes of processing this report and communication with you.

If you are unable to report a concern about content via this form please contact the Service Owner.

Please enter an email address you wish to be contacted on. Please describe the unacceptable content in sufficient detail to allow us to locate it, and why you consider it to be unacceptable.
By submitting this report, you accept that it is accurate and that fraudulent or nuisance complaints may result in action by the University.