Sciamma: Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) (2019)
Celine Sciamma’s latest film is an extraordinary love story, set at the end of the eighteenth century, on a small island in Brittany, where artist Marianne (Noemie Merlant) has been commissioned by a countess (Valeria Golino) to paint the portrait of her daughter Heloise (Adele Hanael). Along with Sophie (Luana Bajrami), these four women are the only characters in the film, and virtually the only people we ever see in the film, which doesn’t feature a single man, or a single man speaking, until the final scenes. We learn, early on, that Heloise’s younger sister committed suicide by throwing herself off the island’s cliffs, and that Heloise rejected an earlier male artist, and is refusing to accept a suitor in Milan. In both cases, she has effectively rejected a male gaze, meaning that Marianne has to be very careful about how she embarks upon the portrait, which is eventually intended for this Milanese suitor. In fact, the countess conceals the fact that Marianne is an artist, introducing her to Heloise as a companion, and enjoining Marianne to take in Heloise’s atmosphere so she can befriend her, observe her and then finally paint her from memory.
From the very outset, this suffuses Portrait with a painterly stillness and silence, compounded by Sciamma’s use of pastel tones and Flemish hues that make this French island feel quite remote from any familiar historical version of France. The camera lingers in the space between objects and bodies, as Sciamma converges the lens of her camera with the canvas surfaces that mark the distinctions between scenes. Not only does this imbue the film with an incredible sensuality and texturality, but it condenses the film to the space between artist and subject – or expands the space between artist and subject until it encompasses the entirely of the island. Since Marianne’s mission is to capture the radiance and ambience of Heloise on canvas, she is continually positioning and regarding her against different backdrops, while also circling and reorienting herself with respect to her, trying to absorb all the different angles needed to make her face convincing when placed on canvas.
On the one hand, this process of observation is meant to be a conduit for the male gaze – a surrogate male gaze that will permit Marianne to capture Heloise in an appropriate way for her prospective husband in Milan. On the other hand, this observation becomes an end in itself for Marianne, as the process of watching Heloise is gradually dissociated from the process of painting her – and as the painting itself is absorbed into the sensuous circumambience that emerges around the two women during their daily walks along the cliff face. This landscape, like their futures, is so circumscribed that the sensuality of the present moment is amplified, since there’s so little between them in their respective futures that the present starts to eclipse the future, or allow them to glimpse a different and more distant kind of future – one that perhaps barely exists even in our own more liberated time.
During this process, Marianne starts to regard her own body by way of Heloise’s, and to discover a new sensuous potentiality in proximity to Heloise, that collapses the distinction between artist and subject. Most literally, she starts to study herself, and use parts of her own body, for the portrait, but Sciamma also dwells on artistic endeavours that depend on shared, sensuous proximity, as when Marianne and Heloise sit next to each other on the piano, and play together, providing Marianne with the detailed observation of Heloise’s fingers she needs for the lower part of the portrait. Nevertheless, the portrait moves more rapidly than this sensuous education, resulting in a rather staid first effort that, for Heloise, “lacks truth” – lacks so much truth, indeed, that she’s not even that insulted that Marianne lied about being a painter, since her artwork hasn’t taken anything of lasting value from her.
Marianne, however, takes this as a challenge to produce a portrait that is true to her experience of Heloise, and their burgeoning lesbian love – a portrait that resists the male gaze implicit in her role as Heloise’s fiancee’s surrogate. This new portrait can’t just be different in kind from the first portrait – it can’t simply be more expressive, or more realistic – but must be different in degree, as Marianne indicates by rubbing out the face of the first portrait and then setting the blank space at the bottom of the portrait on fire. This new aesthetic requires a new lifeworld to bring it into existence, and Marianne and Heloise step into this lifeworld in the dreamlike third act of the film, when the countess takes a trip to the mainland, instructing Marianne to have the portrait finished by the time she returns. Marianne and Heloise are now left to their own devices with Sophie, the maid, who reveals that she is pregnant, and that she has also been waiting for the countess to leave so that she can have an abortion with the assistance of the peasant women who live on the island.
In other words, this third act is bookended by the departure of the countess, as the last vestige of the reproductive family structure, and the abortion of the maid’s child, as the only glimpse of a reproductively structured futurity. In between these two poles, Marianne, Heloise and Sophie occupy an intensified present tense that transforms them into a new kinship unit, fixated on helping each other in the present instead of ratifying the present as a bridge between past and future. The first step in building this present tense involves Marianne and Heloise assisting Sophie with a series of ritualistic and unusual bodily processes to help with her abortion – running up and down the beach, squatting in the rushes, hanging from the kitchen ceiling – reflecting the ways that Marianne disassembles and then puts Heloise’s body back together again on the canvas during this third act. Watching these strange bodily postures is like seeing the female body reconfigured away from reproductive futurity and femininity, which is the real creative gesture that Marianne and Heloise share, as Marianne wonders “Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?”
In fact, so eloquently do Marianne, Heloise and Sophie reconfigure the space between them that space itself starts to feel notional – as provisional as dabs on canvas, or the first few strokes of paint for a portrait. This modernist space leads to a radically different portrait, and a radically different artistic style, inspired by a local coven that Sophie consults in order to provide supernatural assistance for her abortion. After the first crowd of women we have seen fills the frame, singing the first music in the film, Marianne glimpses Heloise at the edge of this feminine potentiality, where her dress catches on fire, as if ignited by a new kind of futurity – the image Marianne chooses for her final, private portrait, cemented here by their first kiss. Their first sexual encounter is then ushered in by the last part of the abortion, which consists of an older woman reaching into Sophie’s vagina and pulling out the foetus, in what would be presented as a gritty moment, or betrayal of femininity, in a contemporary film, but is absorbed back into a more enduring and resilient femininity here.
In fact, this abortion is presented as a different kind of childbirth, as Sophie lies calmly amidst a collection of other babies that have recently been delivered by this unconventional midwife. It’s a vision of abortion that doesn’t deny children, and doesn’t deny futurity, but reconfigures it to accommodate people whose futures are forestalled by the fetish of reproductive futurity – and this is ultimately Sciamma’s conception of queerness across Portrait. As the older woman calmly places her hand in Sophie, reproductive wisdom is turned into an erotic continuum between women that is both radical and traditional – radical because of how it reinvents tradition – envisaging a connection between older and younger women that doesn’t either depend upon or reject childbirth, but instead rejects biological motherhood as a dominant point of reference and consensus. Accordingly, Heloise tells Marianne to look at this scene before recreating it in the bedroom that night for their first sexual encounter, and to note how it involutes motherhood into a new configuration of desire and futurity – desire as futurity – for a global community of women.
In essence, Heloise is prescribing a painting here for Marianne, or breaking down the “real” space of the world and the “imaginary” space of painting, much as the female gaze in Portrait breaks down the distinction between artist and subject upon which the male gaze depends, thereby reiterating the male gaze as an artificial and contrived distance between the painterly subject, coded as male, and the subject of painting, coded as female. In one of the most revelatory moments of the film, Marianne reveals the real reason why female artists are not permitted to attend life drawing sessions with male models – not because of prudishness, but because this would give women knowledge of male anatomy, which is essential for painting the religious, historical and mythological scenes that are required for every male artist’s professional portfolio. Maintaining the masculinity of the artist, and the masculine distance of the artist, thus depends both on a subject that is always inherently female, and a knowledge of the male body that females are not permitted to ever acquire.
Conversely, Marianne and Heloise’s love involves collaborating on a single artistic act, both emotionally and aesthetically, that takes place both on the canvas and the surface of their bodies. The first time we see them naked together, Marianne is rubbing paint under Heloise’s armpit, as their love collapses art and life, portrait and self-portrait, to create an event that can only be “framed” by the haptic space between them. As a result, the last part of the film is almost entirely silent, spoken in a language of looks, gestures and caresses, as Marianne completes her final work – a private portrait for Heloise that she inscribes in a hardbound book. As she examines her own face in a small mirror, Sciamma composes the scene so that the mirror sits over Heloise’s groin, fusing sexual organs and sight organs into a single, rapturous, mutual gaze that wraps the two women in an embrace that seems quiet enough, still enough and silent enough to elude the decades of alienation that must follow.
These decades start immediately after this scene, as the countess abruptly returns to peruse the “official” final portrait for Heloise’s suitor – as a surrogate for her suitor – ushered in by the first male voice that we hear in the film. After the incredible space between Marianne, Heloise and Sophie in the third act, this male voice is a massive comedown, and reminded me a bit of John Giorno’s description of returning to the bland world of heteronormative commuting after spending an afternoon in the Prince Street station beat in New York City, as recounted in Jose Esteban Munoz’s Cruising Utopia. As in Munoz’s vision of queerness, Sciamma provides us with both an elsewhere and an elsewhen – a notional sense of both place and time that seems to survive Marianne and Heloise’s subsequent distance from one another. Even when Marianne sees a portrait of Heloise, years later, with a child added in, Heloise has her finger in the page of the book where Marianne drew her portrait, while her final glimpse of Marianne – at the very symphony she once recommended to her – seems inflected through the same prescience of their time in Brittany, even or especially if the two women never make eye contact across the vast expanse of the crowded Milanese theatre.
There’s an incredible resilience to these final scenes that’s epitomised by Sciamma never returning to the brief framing device that starts the film, in which Marianne is asked, by one of her students, about the story behind a picture lying in her studio, which depicts Heloise standing, skirt on fire, on the beach. By never returning to this framing device, and never returning to the painting that gives the film its title, Sciamma never permits intensified present that exists between Marianne and Heloise to be tragically foreclosed by futurity, or to be relegated to a tragically remote past. Instead, the final note of the film is – unexpectedly – one of resilience, even optimism, as Sciamma assures her audience, and especially her queer audience, of their capacity to glimpse futures, or even live in futures, that are hundreds of years away. That is, after all, what queer people do, and have always done – and do beautifully in one of the most accomplished films in Sciamma’s filmography.
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