The Defiant Muse

By Alice BlackhurstDecember 22, 2019

The Defiant Muse
CÉLINE SCIAMMA’S LATEST FILM, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, opens with a provocation to feminist cinephiles: an instruction to stare at one of its female protagonists. But this is no ordinary voyeurism, and the movie quickly overlaps the objectifying templates of “visual pleasure” with those of patient and sustained engagement. “Look at me,” says Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a successful, independent woman painter in 18th-century Brittany, giving lessons in life-drawing to a group of gathered female students. “Don’t go too fast,” the artist, now also model, advises her young protégées. “Really note the position of my arms. Really take the time to observe me.” 

The film, which won the Queer Palm and the Prix du scénario at Cannes this year, has already been appraised as a perfect distillation of the “female gaze,” yet its interests are less unilaterally scopic than cerebral, kinetic, and multisensory. Since her first full-length feature, Water Lilies, which appeared in 2007, Sciamma has worked hard to contour feminine experience on screen with specificity: to lift the misogynist cloaks eager to keep women’s stories shrouded in “mystery” and to reveal their lived, prosaic textures. In the former film, the ornate, manicured world of synchronized swimming is presented as a tumult of physical exertion and inchoate hormones, while in Tomboy (2011), the experience of a pre-pubescent girl “passing” as a boy among her peers is lent aching, quotidian precision.

In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a structural preoccupation with the choreographies of gender-as-performance is queued behind the desire to uncover what Anne Boyer calls “the embodied location of feeling,” or the slippery sentiment of love as it is incubated through dialogue, sensory apprenticeship, and artistic collaboration between women. Yet, in keeping with Sciamma’s elegantly sparse filmmaking style, this archaeology of affect is delivered from nostalgia, or easy sentimentalism. Throughout, the film’s insistence on a hybrid of the intellectual and sensual conjures a new syntax for how we absorb cinema: rejecting any stark division of the world into viewing “subjects” and seen “objects.” It replaces tired prescriptions to look at with new paradigms of feeling with the women’s bodies it depicts on screen.

Portrait’s rugged exterior landscapes — faithfully filmed along the Northern French coast — telegraph its lean aesthetics: its elemental composition, which cites not only fire as trope but also earth, water, and wind. Following its opening classroom scene, we move backward in time to observe Marianne traveling by boat to the home of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young aristocrat whose portrait the artist has been secretly commissioned to complete in order to cement the latter’s speculative marriage to an Italian suitor. The journey is choppy: at one point, the young painter drops her easel, but, in an exposure of the film’s primary affinities to art and the rigors of artmaking, thinks nothing of diving into the agitated waters to retrieve it. Though Marianne is being chaperoned to the estate by male watchmen and male sea captains (in one of only a handful of moments where male characters feature in the film), her vigorous comportment is indifferent to demands for feminine civility. As soon as she arrives at the spartan, wind-chiseled mansion, she shrugs off her corset and smokes naked in front of a lit fireplace: a sumptuous, if anachronistic image which slyly warns us this will be no starched, “straight” costume drama.


In an interview given to promote the film at the Toronto International Film Festival this autumn, Sciamma voiced the aphorism that “desire is delay,” and Portrait, frustrating easy gratification, teases its viewer for the initial sighting of the subject of its title commission. For Héloïse, conceding to be represented as an image will inscribe the telos of marriage, to whose constraint she would prefer internment in a convent (“At least you can sing and read books there,” she quips). Her Countess mother, played by Valeria Golino, knows this all too well, and therefore counsels Marianne to pose as her daughter’s “walking companion” to obscure her true motives. Yet Héloïse’s initial stance toward the new recruit is one of unflinching recalcitrance. We first glimpse her from the back, her silhouette wrapped in a thick shawl. In what appears will be an echo of the tragic fate which literally befell her sister (who, we learn, seemingly jumped to her death in order to avoid her mother’s grim designs), Héloïse sprints breathlessly toward a cliff’s edge, before stopping at its border and turning, impishly, to grin at Marianne. There is the tangible voltage of sexual attraction between the women. But Sciamma has them then face out to contemplate the sea together, a side-by-side “portrait,” which circumvents the narcissistic tête-à-tête of usual romantic love, and conjures an eroticism from a shared perspective of equality.

In its fierce commitment to exhibiting a sexual dynamic not dependent on predation, domination, or imbalances of power, Portrait’s study of a passionate affair between two women is whole stratospheres away from another film about lesbian desire that captivated Cannes this decade, Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 Blue Is the Warmest Color. While Sciamma ventures an eroticism that is the result of rigorous curation, and a labored, non-voracious form of longing, Kechiche’s film luridly presents sex between women as a kind of graphic endurance sport, whose sole objective is the pyrotechnics of euphoric orgasm. Its lead, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), is not allowed to graduate beyond the fragile postures of the ingénue, while the more experienced and comfortably bourgeois Emma (Léa Seydoux) evolves to have a glittering career as an up-and-coming artist. Though Emma also paints Adèle, the latter is encouraged not to break the spell of her fantasy avatar on canvas. Instead, she is relegated to making the canapés at Emma’s painfully contrived parties, and shooed away from glamorous gallery openings, whose abstract dialogues she has not been furnished with the tools to speak.

Tellingly, Sciamma has the first attempt at Héloïse’s portrait — in which the latter has no input, while the mother secretly directs the whole operation — fail abysmally. “You really see me like that?” Héloïse asks Marianne, dismissing the cold, lifeless attempt after the latter has revealed to her the real reason for her presence on the beach-side walks. “So that’s what your looking was all about,” the younger woman diagnoses, wounded.

In another promotional interview for Portrait, Sciamma has suggested that one of the “key manifestos” of her film is to thoroughly dismantle the enduring trope of the passive muse, dismissed by the director as a “pretty word” which “conceals women’s participation in art history.” In Portrait’s account of the influence of women on canonical art practices, Héloïse is affirmed instead as a crucial co-creator, a vital presence in the room who inescapably inflects — and initially, defiantly disrupts — the completion of her image. (The reimagining of Héloïse as collaborator with her own discrete sense of agency is lent further gravitas by Sciamma’s long-standing romantic involvement with Adèle Haenel, whom she first worked with in Water Lilies.) Héloïse’s eventual suggestion that she pose openly for Marianne to help her consolidate a better painting over a five-day period when her mother will be on a trip elsewhere, is, to borrow a phrase from Lydia Davis, “already permeated with the end of it,” or with the guaranteed termination of their escalating partnership. Still, it dangles something potentially more enduring in its wake: a representation both of them have actively consented to.

Consistent with the film’s commitment to a common ground of sexuality, the first time the two women touch is in the context of a sitting where Marianne displaces herself from the painter’s easel to position herself at Héloïse’s sedentary level. “We’re in the same place now,” she says, brushing her subject’s arm. Yet if their relationship is crucially triangulated by the project in which they are both enmeshed, it is also mediated by other people, other women: the impressionistic young maidservant (Luàna Bajrami) with whom they dine at night and play cards, emancipated from the mother’s strictures; and a wider network of sisterly allies who commune at night before a glowing bonfire to drink, smoke, and sing in one of the feature’s most contagious scenes.

Though the pleasures of sorority accumulate as a motif within Sciamma’s cinema (most acutely in 2014’s adrenalized, exultant Girlhood), her Portrait is not a separatist utopia: an exclusive, women-only commune radically unscored by the demands of men. If to some extent the film’s largely female cast and subscription to the slow, circular rhythms of what Julia Kristeva famously appointed “women’s time” risks suggesting that the only contexts in which women might desire each other are ones blanched of all masculine presence, this precarious prescription is revised by a secondary thread in which Sophie, the aforementioned maidservant, discovers she is pregnant and attempts, via various alternative remedies, to self-abort the fetus. The desires of men, their material incursions into women’s lives and bodies, are anything but absent in a lacerating scene in which Sophie, accompanied by both Héloïse and Marianne, visits a local wise-woman who performs an invasive surgery without anaesthesia or other numbing agents. Here, the gaze is deployed to explicitly politicized ends as, squeamishly about to turn away, Marianne is directed by Héloïse to “keep looking.” Later, back in the mansion, the women gesturally recreate the setup of the operation. “We’re going to paint it,” Héloïse announces, expanding art beyond the closed unit of the couple into a collective forum, interested to represent a multitude of feminine experiences.

For a film formally invested in exhibiting the subtleties of flowering erotic love, Portrait of a Lady on Fire occasionally wears its visuals too heavily. It is sometimes carried away by its own exuberance, even as it tries to measure that exuberance against the everyday economies of co-creation. Recurring, haunting shots of Héloïse dressed in her future white wedding gown — shown to seize Marianne’s imagination as abrupt, terrifying visitations, while gesturing toward its character’s inevitable fate — interrupt the feature’s otherwise restrained use of costumes. The film’s similar recourse to its central fire and mirror tropes occasionally strays into hyperactively theatrical territory, at odds with its usually meticulous visual caretaking. After the two women are shown — on the back of a forensically respectful, never instrumentalizing buildup of sexual tension — to have gone to bed together, a brief scene where Marianne positions a mirror in front of Héloïse’s genitals so that she can sketch a drawing of herself to give to her lover is mathematically gorgeous, but leaves the viewer feeling a bit cold. The sequence’s stylized nods to Manet’s Olympia, as well as Courbet’s LOrigine du monde, land as a citational intrusion on the film’s otherwise radically tender love scenes, whose adhesive, “sticky” quality (when the women kiss, we feel and hear the pooling weight of shared saliva) mount an emphatic rejection of pornography’s frictionless surfaces.

The eventual return of Héloïse’s mother unfolds a different chapter in the film. The hypnotic spell of fusion between lovers is severed; corsets are briskly laced; and men start encroaching upon once female-only chambers. We lurch forward into the future, years after Héloïse has made her Italian marriage, when the affair with Marianne is an estranged, astral memory. Sciamma has said that in Portrait her ambition was to superimpose two separate timelines of erotic love against each other: to confront both the present moment of a passion’s coming-into-presence but also its aftermath, the lasting imprints it bequeaths.

The film’s final sequence, where Héloïse relives the tempestuous dynamics of her former affair while attending the performance of a movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons alone, rehearses its injunctions to the viewer to sense alongside its protagonists. As Héloïse is viscerally moved by the performance — cycling through grief, elation, anger, and near-beatific resignation — so are we, in an active, embodied partnership with the images on screen. Mechanisms of projection and identification dissolve as Sciamma, her camera placed at a fixed, formal distance, grants both actress and audience the permission to inhabit their bodies in their respective spaces. Refusing ultimate conclusions or reparations, the scene encapsulates the radicality of being given space to feel, and asks how this might infuse both the pleasures of carnality and the raptures of making art.


In recent weeks, Adèle Haenel’s revelations that from the age of 12 she was sexually harassed and repeatedly non-consensually touched by the director Christophe Ruggia on the set of her debut film, The Devils, have exported Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s meditations on relationships of sexual equality; non-objectifying models of eroticism; and the tired, outmoded status of the silent, passive muse onto an explicitly political and global stage. Refusing to remain mute on the damage that the abuse inflicted on both her work and her integrity as a young woman, because “silence is an immense violence,” Haenel, with uncompromising focus and precision, appeared on a live television program organized by the French channel Mediapart to perform the difficult labors of testimony on November 4. Yet, reluctant to cast her aggressor as a “monster,” nor herself as a one-dimensional victim, she spoke elegantly of the enduring patriarchal imaginary in which all of us, wittingly or otherwise, are implicated. Her call to action, echoing the invitation in Sciamma’s film to contemplate more closely, more deeply, and more attentively, was grafted from distinctly visual motifs: “We need to look at ourselves.” In French: On se regarde.

While some may argue that to read Sciamma’s film in the context of Haenel’s attestations does a violation to the artwork, or contaminates its “sanctity,” such arguments wobble perilously close to the desired separation between artists and their work, a separation that the #MeToo movement, vitally reignited in France by Haenel’s appearance on Mediapart, has fought hard to deconstruct. The film’s homage to the eroticism of equality becomes, instead, only more distilled and potent in the context of Haenel’s going on the record. Her testimony crucially refuses to maintain the model of consensual collaboration in the realm of fictional utopia, and insists on its application in the real world.

On the eve of their co-authored portrait’s big reveal to the Countess, Héloïse and Marianne, in Sciamma’s rigorously loving film, stand before their work which, excepting a few, final strokes, is very close to completion. “How do you know when it is finished?” Héloïse asks her creative partner and lover. “You decide,” Marianne replies, placing her brush emphatically upon the canvas. Adèle Haenel’s recent revelations wear the same textures of deliberation, mobilize the same risky stretch toward what is felt and known within the body to be true. They revise not only the terrain of responses to sexual harassment, but also invite a different kind of cinema criticism, one where films can no longer remain hermetically sealed objects but must exist as coterminous with the world against which they chafe. It might, at this early stage, be too soon to say that following her testimonies, French cinema will never be regarded in the same impassive way again. Or it could, if we decide it, be exactly the right moment.


Alice Blackhurst is a Junior Research Fellow in French and Visual Culture at King's College, Cambridge. Her work has appeared in Texte zur Kunst, British Vogue, The Paris Review Daily, ELLE, and more.

LARB Contributor

Alice Blackhurst teaches feminist film theory at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Her monograph Luxury Sensation and the Moving Image was published by MHRA books last month.


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