Portrait of A Lady on Fire is a contagious French romantic drama that talks about the 18th century France, an era where the art of portrayal or making portraits was on its peak. It’s directed by the French film maker Celine Sciamma, who is known for her coming of age stories like “Girlhood” and “Water lilies”. Portrait of a Lady on Fire could be viewed as a paragon of equality and the eternal philosophy of freedom. If the basic idea of romanticism or maybe self awareness had a face then this film would be it. When you are unaware of the pre existing notions and taboos of a society that has embodied the perspective of a heterosexual male, then you create something in its pure form, that is un-corrupted and immaculate.
The Inspiration Behind the Artistry
The Greek mythology of Orpheus becomes the topic of discussion for the three curious ladies sitting at the dining table in a forlorn castle situated on an island in Brittany. One of them is Heloise, who is a reluctant bride to be. She has a candid personality that sometimes could be mistaken for austerity. Marianne, the painter, who has been called to achieve the arduous feat of make a portrait of Heloise, without her knowing, has a poetic approach of looking at things. The third is Sophie, who works a maid who doesn’t divulge much into the personifications and imageries.
In Greek mythology Orpheus descended to the underworld to bring back his dead wife Eurydice. The Gods of underworld told him that he could take his wife only on one condition that he does not looks behind to see if she is following him. But Orpheus did look behind only to lose her again. Sophie thinks that Orpheus is nothing but a dunce to do so and Marianne speculates that did he make a poet’s choice rather than a lover’s by accepting to live with her memory. But Heloise shatters all the presumptions by saying that what if it was Eurydice who asked Orpheus to turn around. The statement validates the presence of a female voice. It puts her in control of her fate.
When Marianne arrives to the island, she is told to not reveal it to Heloise that she has come to make a portrait of her. The portrait is to be used for gaining approval of a Nobleman hailing from Milan, for a proposal of marriage. Heloise feels that it is unfair that she can neither see his portrait nor meet him before deciding to spend her whole life with him, thereby refuses from posing. Marianne accompanies her in the long walks to get a chance to observe her. Those observations account for the female gaze in the portrait she makes later.
Celine Sciamma talks about the 18th century France and how we don’t get to know about the female artists of that period, when evidently there were many. It’s not about contemplating the discrimination that existed during those times, but a criticism of the pseudo equality of the contemporary times. It is a cynical manipulation of how we view the history. The paintings used in the film have been made by a contemporary French painter, Helene Delmaire. There are films that revolve around a contemporary subject, but are not contemporary in the idea they profess. Even though set in 18th century, this film is not only coeval but also relevant.
The Male Gaze
Male gaze could be said to be the perception that the majority have embodied. Various art forms like films, paintings etc have aided in making that perception. If we talk specifically about the 18th century French culture, we see that women were never encouraged to sketch or make the portrait of a male figure. And even when they did, their work was never celebrated and hence the majority never knew about it. We were only acquainted with the perspective (which we believed to be the only frame of reference) of the male artists. There is some subjectivity to the fact that perspective is not gender specific, but even then there are some stereotypes that crepe in when you don’t ever take into consideration the viewpoint of the gender you are referring to constantly, through your limited knowledge. Many times these stereotypes did take the shape of objectification of the females.
In Portrait of a Lady on Fire when Marianne observes Heloise, her nuances, her belief systems, her emotions then we do get familiarized to a different perspective which could be referred to as the Female Gaze, or maybe an absence of a male gaze or maybe a counter to it. When Sophia is pregnant she is asked by Marianne whether she wants a baby, to which she replies in negative and like it’s an everyday thing they take her for getting an abortion. Sophia is the sole determiner in what to do or not to do with her own body. The gift of a male dominated world is that women might be denied a second life like Eurydice, but are in control of their minds and body.
An Unconventional Outlook
Heloise had not known love before Marianne arrived. She goes to the mass to hear the music which some might find desolate. But she hasn’t heard the orchestra music so it’s hard for her to make the comparison. The women grow fond of each other and what follows is a portrayal of unconventional romance. The director has chosen what to show and what not to reveal during the scenes that exhibit an unhindered intimacy. The ambiguity led to an increased tantalizing effect the scenes had.
The filmmaker wanted to achieve parity between the characters and the viewers. Maybe that is why there is no background score in the film. You too fall in love as Heloise and Marianne commingle together into eternity. The forbidden journey of lesbian romance never tries to find any answer rather creates a rhythm in the chaos.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire speaks a thousand words between the silences. It creates an imagery that was conveniently skipped as we resorted to a perspective that was believed to be the universal truth, since the time immemorial. Watch this epitome of romance, and I am sure you won’t be able to wipe it out of your memory.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a French historical romantic film written and directed by Céline Sciamma released in 2019. The film is streaming on Hulu.
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