“When you are observing me, who do you think I am observing?”
Directed by Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) is a careful and elaborate portrait of the “female gaze” and femininity from a perspective of a female director. The film begins with a young French painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) who travels to an island where she is hired by the Countess (Valeria Golino) to draw a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) without her knowing. As the deadline is approaching, Héloïse finally agrees to show her face voluntarily and Marianne, therefore, finishes her portrait in time. Also at this moment, the two women find out they have fallen in love with each other, but soon they have to separate and embark on their different tracks in life.
As one of the most explicit motifs in the film, the portrait contributes to enriching the connotations of the film by serving not only as a cause of the whole narrative but more as a medium of the “gaze”. Because Héloïse refuses her marriage to a Milanese man, she refuses to pose in front of the male painter hired before Marianne. Therefore he couldn’t even finish the painting and left the portrait unfinished. Marianne, on the other hand, carefully observes every detail of Héloïse’s face during the day and completes the portrait by piecing together the sketches of Héloïse’s face, according to her memory, at night. The gaze, or the voyeuristic look of Marianne, at the very beginning, can be reckoned as an observation that treats Héloïse as an object: Marianne only looks at Héloïse because she is a part of the task and all Marianne thinks is how to paint the figure under aesthetic rules, instead of the true nature of a human being. Such a way of gazing finds its similarity in the concept of “male gaze” coined by Mulvey in 1975, which “refers to the androcentric attitude of an image […] in particular of women, in terms of male or masculine interests, emotions, attitudes, or values” (Eaton, 2008, pp. 877–878). Marianne paints this portrait for men in Milan to help them choose if they wish to marry Héloïse and when she paints the picture, the body of Héloïse has been observed in fragments, not as a whole. Marianne actively looks at the body of passive Héloïse, who has no idea she is being observed as an object (for men to pick up later).
While a portrait can be used as the best tool to gaze at a person, films can usually fall into a trap that leads to inequality between the artist and the artwork. As the artwork was created by the artist, he/she bestowed the life on his/her work, and therefore, the artist has superior power over the object. In contrast to that, Portrait of a Lady on Fire has demonstrated a different idea and challenges the inequal presentation of the male-female relationship by demonstrating the “female gaze” in the film. “Female gaze” is defined as the perspective that is different from a male view of the subject and against the “split between active/male and passive/female” and the “traditional” position of women, that is, “to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey, 1975, p.11). In this film, the relationship between the two protagonists is equal. On the first day outing with Héloïse, when Marianne tries to capture the outline of her face, Héloïse always looks back at her. She refuses to be observed as an object, as she says to Marianne when painting the second portrait, “when you are observing me, who do you think I am observing?” This is truly a declaration of the “female gaze” which changes the passive “to-be-looked-at” position of the female: Héloïse refuses to be looked at and she also asks the creator of the portrait to gaze back from her position as an active subject.
Besides her role as the model for her wedding portrait, Héloïse is also a lover for Marianne, so instead of “presenting her as a primarily passive object for heterosexual-male erotic gratification” (Eaton, 2008, p. 878) as the “male gaze” does, Marianne paints Héloïse with “intimacy, reciprocity, and respect” (Balsom, 2020, p. 38). Such a painting process with a gradual mutual understanding “epitomizes […] a feeling of access to the inner lives of the protagonists […] and a commitment to representing aspects of women’s experience that are marginalized within the patriarchal culture” (Balsom, 2020, p. 38). In the portrait, what we see is a presentation of “women’s experiences […] in ways that foreground their position as subjects of desire” (Balsom, 2020, p. 38), a true desire for beauty and love, instead of the passive object to be erotically looked at by a heterosexual man.
A portrait is also a pathway to express the inner mind of a person. In Dorian Gray (Oliver Parker, 2009), the portrait of Dorian (Ben Barnes) grows a hint of guileful cruelty when Dorian gets tired of Sibyl (Rachel Hurd-Wood) , leading to her tragic death. With Dorian degenerating into a vicious game of life, his picture in the attic starts to rot while his face remains as young as before. The portraits of Héloïse also get developed through time and the transformation is also obvious. Marianne says to Héloïse that for the first portrait that she sees more than Héloïse in the picture: rules, conventions, and ideas (such painting requirements could also be interpreted as a hint of the limitation for women from the society), while Héloïse denies the picture is all but herself because she did not see herself with a soul, but as an object to be portrayed out of required rules. Later, when the two women become true lovers, Héloïse “is unable to suppress a satisfied lover’s smile” (Esposito, 2021, p.20) and by this time, we, as audiences, can finally see Héloïse in the portrait with a smile. This time, such pleasure comes out of the desire between the lovers and they grow their love naturally when gazing at each other. And thus, as Esposito (2021) claims, “Marianne is the only one who could paint Héloïse’s portrait, for […] the feminine—and queer—trust that the two feel in each other’s presence. It is this that lets Marianna gaze at Héloïse as no other painter has ever gazed at her before”.
By depicting a woman in a picture on canvas who also gazes back with love instead of painting a rigid figure created by aesthetic rules, Portrait of a Lady on Fire presents an art piece from a female perspective, and on the other hand, it also challenges the traditional concept of gaze in an explicit way.
Balsom, E. (2020). In Search of the Female Gaze. Cinema Scope, 22(83), 36–40.
Eaton, A. (2008). Feminist Philosophy of Art. Philosophy Compass, 3(5), 873–893.
Esposito, V. (2021). Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A “Manifesto about the Female Gaze”. World Literature Today, 95(3), 18–20.
Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Screen, 16(3), 6-18.
Dorian Gray (2009) dir. Oliver Parker, UK.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire / Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu (2019) dir. Céline Sciamma, France.
Written for The Film Dispatch by Shuhao Chen.