IN HER AWARD-WINNING 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, French director Céline Sciamma offers a provocative new vision of how to tell women’s stories from the past. Set in pre-Revolutionary France, her narrative confronts the obstacles that impeded women’s quest for freedom, agency, and equality in an era when none of those were givens. Her portrayal is both timeless and distinct. Rendering women’s stories from historical periods that lacked what we now deem basic sociopolitical rights has long posed a challenge for scholars and artists. By thematizing the tension between narrative and remembrance through the character of a female painter, Sciamma contends that women must claim their own narratives, even amid inescapable inequalities.
The film opens with the sound of charcoal on canvas. “First, my contours […] not too fast,” a woman instructs a class of female art students in late-18th-century Paris. The pupils sit in a row, portfolios balanced on their laps, attentively sketching her features. The spell of the lesson is broken when the teacher, Marianne, discovers that her students have found a painting she stored away long ago, a small canvas depicting a solitary woman on a moonlit beach, dress ablaze — the film’s eponymous portrait. This painting, we gradually come to understand, is how Marianne has chosen to remember two weeks she once spent in Brittany.
Marianne emanates a sense of independence from the start. In an extended flashback, we next see her arrive at a Breton chateau after a boat ride through choppy waters. The year is 1770. A servant, Sophie, leads her to a room that will serve as her bedroom and studio. Later that evening, Marianne asks Sophie about the task ahead of her — she has been summoned to paint the portrait of a young woman, Héloïse, who has returned home from convent school to prepare for marriage to a Milanese man she has never met. The decision to wed is his, hinging on his approval of her likeness. Héloïse’s sister had been betrothed to him and, it is implied, took her own life to escape this fate. Héloïse also wants to reject the marriage, having refused to sit for the last painter, a man. As a result, her mother, the Comtesse, has brought Marianne to paint a portrait in secret, memorizing Héloïse’s features while pretending to be her companion (years before, Marianne’s father had painted the Comtesse’s own portrait). While the plot feels a bit too pat, it succeeds in immediately establishing three contrasting approaches toward female agency and fate: Marianne’s career as an artist gives her partial control over her destiny, while Héloïse is reduced to a seemingly futile gesture of refusal after her sister had chosen death to escape a fate that had been determined for her.
Sciamma has described the movie as “a manifesto about the female gaze,” and it is precisely as Marianne and Héloïse begin to share their experiences and frustrations, their common quest for liberty and their views about equality, that they start to truly see one another. Marianne, too, went to a convent school but found it stifling and unjust. She left after her first communion, having been punished for drawing in the margins of her books (a detail, as we will see, that Sciamma extracted from the memoirs of an 18th-century woman artist). Héloïse, however, longs to return to the egalitarianism of convent life; “equality is a pleasant feeling,” she remarks. When Marianne divulges her true reason for being in Brittany and reveals the finished piece, Héloïse is so coldly critical of the portrait’s lifelessness that Marianne wipes out the entire face. Héloïse agrees to sit for a new painting while the Comtesse goes away for a week.
In the Comtesse’s absence, Héloïse and Marianne establish new modes of equality as they slowly become lovers. Héloïse gives voice to these psychological shifts while posing for her portrait, telling Marianne, “We’re in the same place. Exactly the same place.” When Marianne protests, Héloïse explains, “If you look at me, who do I look at?” As the two develop a dialogue around Marianne’s work, they soon establish a quasi-utopian sorority with Sophie, reading Ovid together, playing card games, attending a village bonfire, and (in an extraordinary scene) helping Sophie abort an unwanted pregnancy. Gathered around the kitchen table, the three women seem almost like the Fates at play, as Sophie’s advancing embroidery — a still-life stitching of flowers — signals the passage of transient days. When Héloïse procures opium from a village woman, she explains to Marianne that “it makes the time last longer.” They take the drug on their last night together. For, as the women know all too well, their social hierarchies will soon reemerge.
Inevitably disrupting this idyll, the Comtesse returns, wedding dress for Héloïse in hand, and approves of the painting, which is duly shipped off. After saying goodbye to Héloïse, Marianne runs down the stairs; Héloïse follows, in a parallel to their first encounter, and Marianne opens the door, letting in blinding light. “Turn around,” Héloïse instructs. The two share a final glance, and we hear the door close. Years later, we encounter the pair once more in Paris. Marianne has exhibited a painting of Orpheus and Eurydice under her father’s name at the Louvre Salon; a portrait of Héloïse with a young child hangs nearby. Soon thereafter, Marianne glimpses Héloïse at the opera house. This time, the glance is one-sided: Héloïse fails to see Marianne in the opposite balcony, transported, instead, by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and, by implication, by her time with Marianne, who first played the piece for her. (This sequence involves a subtle reframing of Mary Cassatt’s 1878 painting, In the Loge.)
Sciamma’s cinematic work has focused on women at moments of self-discovery, and it is apt that she chose an artist as the subject for her first foray into the past. Marianne emerges as a representative of the female storyteller across time, one who, like Sciamma herself, is in constant creative dialogue with her subjects. The fourth film that Sciamma has both written and directed, Portrait of a Lady on Fire won the Best Screenplay award and the Queer Palm at Cannes (she was the first woman to achieve the latter). Yet Sciamma’s decision to enter the historian’s realm poses distinct challenges. The story is grounded in homages to French history while it plays with known figures and facts; it takes place at a mid-Enlightenment moment when women could cultivate significant cultural influence but also faced wide-ranging convictions about their physical, mental, and creative inferiority. Legally, women were subject to the wills of their fathers before marriage and those of their husbands after. They had few rights over property or over their own selves, and they could not divorce. These sobering realities underlie the film.
Historical citations abound, beginning with the women’s names. Marianne, a common 18th-century name, became, with the Revolution in 1789, the personification of France itself: a female figure symbolizing liberty, equality, fraternity, and reason. Héloïse was the name of a famously erudite 12th-century French woman whose tragic romance with her tutor, Peter Abelard, led her to spend her adult life in a convent; their Latin correspondence influenced centuries of writers — most relevantly here, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his enormously popular epistolary novel Julie, or the New Héloïse (1761). Sophie, too, is a Rousseauian character — the ideal woman, subject of Book V in his influential educational treatise, Émile, or On Education (1762).
Biographical details from the lives of major female artists, as well as prominent citations of their practices, are interweaved throughout the film, starting with the opening scene in Marianne’s atelier. Scholars have recently begun to recognize the sheer number of women artists working at this time, and Sciamma elected to “invent one to talk about all of them.” Marianne’s studio resembles the earliest known painting of an artist’s atelier full of female students, Adrienne Marie Louise Grandpierre-Deverzy’s The Studio of Abel de Pujol (1822). Grandpierre-Deverzy exhibited this canvas at the Louvre Salon in 1822, and sold it to one of the era’s leading collectors. Several other 18th-century images, visually referenced by Sciamma, show women using portfolios as drawing surfaces.
Above all, Marianne’s narrative reflects that of Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, one of the few widely recognized women painters from the era. In her autobiographical Souvenirs (1835–’37), the first published memoir by a female artist, Vigée-Lebrun described how she too had attended a convent school from a young age, where she was punished for “scrawl[ing] on everything at all seasons; my copy-books, and even my schoolmates’ [books].” Like Marianne, she left “after my first communion” and learned the skills of a portraitist from her father. Vigée-Lebrun’s big break came in 1778 with the opportunity to paint the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, for the Queen’s mother, Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. The Empress had long sought a portrait that captured Marie Antoinette’s features and regal status, rejecting several that failed to accomplish this delicate task (softening the unflattering Habsburg chin had proved a recurrent challenge). Vigée-Lebrun was the first woman to attempt the Queen’s portrait, and the first artist to succeed; this won her decades of prestigious accolades and commissions. The film alludes to such painterly challenges when the Comtesse offers to recommend Marianne’s services to a particularly “ugly” friend (it won’t be easy, she warns).
There are broader issues at play here, as scholars continue to debate how to tell stories about women from the past in a way that acknowledges both societal constrictions and personal gains. Aware of some of these tensions, Sciamma has suggested that women’s progress occurs in “cycles.” She aimed, she says, to create “a new kind of story,” built around the inevitability that her characters cannot end up together; it would not be “respecting the lives of these women [t]o make them even think, maybe we could escape.” Even as the rapport between the two women frees Marianne from the rigid artistic conventions that had hampered her earlier work, Héloïse’s own transition — from resisting her marriage to accepting her distasteful fate — is never explained. These frictions ripple throughout the story, surfacing at key moments — at the bonfire, Héloïse and Marianne stand transfixed while the local women chant “fugere non possum” (Latin for “we cannot escape”).
The film tackles this dynamic most directly in the extended mythic motif of Orpheus and Eurydice, two lovers parted by death, whose story Héloïse reads aloud from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, Héloïse, Sophie, and Marianne discuss the tragedy’s final moments at the kitchen table, with each offering her own interpretation. Sophie laments Eurydice’s fate, objecting that there was “no reason” for Orpheus to turn. Héloïse argues that Orpheus, being “madly in love […] can’t resist.” Marianne goes further. “Perhaps he makes a choice,” she suggests. “He chooses the memory of her. That’s why he turns. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.” Musingly, Héloïse adds, “Perhaps she was the one who said, ‘Turn around’” — the same words she later uses during her final goodbye to Marianne.
The women’s evolving engagement with this myth — famously used in feminist scholarship as an example of the destructive male gaze — ultimately allegorizes their joint decision to choose memory and art over regret. Even more, it allows them to conclude that the ability to make that choice constitutes its own kind of freedom. Héloïse eventually reclaims the gaze for herself, and then Marianne reclaims the narrative by putting forth their joint interpretation of the lovers’ final moments on the canvas she exhibits, years later, in Paris. A man at the Louvre Salon, the third of only three male speakers in the movie, notes the painting’s unusual narrative choice: “Here, they seem to be saying goodbye.”
These frictions cannot all be resolved, of course, and deeper paradoxes remain, as they do in most efforts to study women from this period. The implicit, critical question is of historical duty: What responsibility does an artist or scholar have when telling women’s stories from societies where they lacked basic sociopolitical rights? How can we recognize the meaningful ways in which women seized agency while also acknowledging the insurmountable barriers they faced? Here, the dilemma is no longer what freedom is but what it can be. Second-wave feminist narratives have long stressed the oppression of patriarchal systems, and for good reason. Now, as we find ever more evidence of women’s cultural activity in the past, the challenge becomes one of honoring the importance of this feminist narrative while also honoring the ways in which women successfully navigated some of these obstacles.
While the film pushes boundaries in provocative ways, it also reinforces traditional narratives in others. For instance, the fact that women artists were banned from Academic drawing classes with nude models has long been cited as a reason why they were unable to become “great” artists. Marianne both parrots this trope (“It is mostly to prevent us from doing great art”) and reveals its fallacy — she has studied nude women and men, the latter in secret (“It’s tolerated,” she says). This is an important, if gentle, corrective to a widespread misperception (we now know of numerous instances in which women artists from the period drew nudes), but it could be pushed further. For example, while the film depicts Marianne’s narrative painting as an open secret, in fact several women artists became successful narrative painters quite openly.
Marianne’s role as memory keeper is gradually invoked by the film’s metanarrative about creation, which in turn is blended into the women’s love story with exquisite grace. Before they spend their first night together, Héloïse asks, “Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?” After Sophie’s abortion, Héloïse restages the scene in Marianne’s room: “We’re going to paint,” Héloïse declares, as the women claim the narrative for themselves. When Marianne completes her final portrait of Héloïse, she expresses a desire to destroy this one as well. Sensing that Marianne blames her for her approaching marriage, Héloïse protests the loss of their equal footing. “Imagine me happy or unhappy,” Héloïse declares, distraught. “But do not imagine me guilty.” When she asks if Marianne would prefer Héloïse to resist, Marianne replies, “Yes.” But when Héloïse presses — “Are you asking me to?” — Marianne responds, “No.” Because, in the end, the women cannot change their story in that way: they cannot escape the world into which they were born. With Marianne, we sense that her freedom and independence will last; with Héloïse, we are less sure. When their parting is imminent, Héloïse reveals that she feels something new — regret. Marianne responds, “Don’t regret. Remember” — another injunction to seize the story for themselves.
This challenge is ours, too. At a moment when women artists of the past are receiving renewed attention for their accomplishments as well as their struggles, the manner in which we tell their stories is of the utmost importance. To commemorate their endeavors is not to deny the hardships they faced, nor the significance of rights that we now see as fundamental and deeply human. But the weighty implications of such constraints should not eclipse the ways in which women of these eras imprinted meaning on their lives, within and around conditions they had no reason to believe would change. To hold these inescapably intricate, necessarily messy, and often contradictory elements in balance is to make Marianne’s choice, that of the poet.
Paris A. Spies-Gans is a historian of gender and art. She received her PhD in History from Princeton University and her MA in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art. She is currently a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows.