The Female Gaze in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

The Bechdel Test, named after its creator Alison Bechdel, aims to measure female representation in film via three criteria: the film must have two named female characters (1), who have a conversation with each other (2) about something other than a man (3). The fact that 60% of films surveyed in 2021 passed the test is hardly cause for celebration — the other 40% (a sizeable chunk!) did not meet the very simple conditions. 

There is no reverse Bechdel test — it is safe to assume that most commercial films made feature at least two named men who have a conversation with each other about something other than a woman. However, if there was, Celine Sciamma’s ground-breaking 2019 film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, would fail at the first hurdle: it features no named male characters. Sciamma writes physical male presence almost entirely out and creates an environment in which a sudden intrusion of a man towards the end of the film feels like just that — unwelcome, shocking, disconcerting. A ‘manifesto for the female gaze’, the film focuses entirely on the lives of the three women at its centre: Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie.

The film follows Parisian painter Marianne as she travels to a remote island in order to paint a portrait of Héloïse, betrothed to an Italian man she has no desire to marry. The two women’s relationship develops into far more than painter and subject, and along the way they provide support for young maid Sophie whose future is put at risk by an unwanted pregnancy. Men are not entirely invisible, therefore — their ability to alter a woman’s life course without her permission is deconstructed and interrogated, with Marianne acting as the liberated opposite to Héloïse, who is being kept in the house to alleviate risk of her choosing to end her life like her sister did when faced with an arranged marriage far away from her home. However, even Marianne is somewhat tied to male influence – at the end of the film, she displays her paintings under her father’s name instead of her own. A woman’s agency was not celebrated in early 19th century France.

This makes what Sciamma does all the more revolutionary. But cutting out the physical presence of men for the vast majority of the film, and predominantly filming them from faceless angles or out of focus, she denies them a voice, just as women during the period were silenced. We do not get to hear how the father of Sophie’s baby feels about her decision to abort – and I was grateful for that. We never meet Héloïse’s Italian fiancé (but any man who goes along with marrying his original fiancée’s sister when he finds out the former has killed herself seems like a huge red flag to me). Héloïse, Marianne and Sophie are left to enjoy the gorgeous countryside and sea by themselves, with the occasional intrusion from Héloïse’s mother. They are also free to enjoy each other – whether in a social sense, playing cards as a three, or in an intimate sense, Marianne and Héloïse embarking on a love affair. One feels as though if there had been any male characters in the film beyond the random sailor whose arrival cruelly signals that it is time for Marianne to leave, viewers would not have as intimate access to such a rich portrait of three women in vastly different circumstances, supporting and loving each other.

The end of the film is so soul destroying precisely because we see that Héloïse has gone through with the marriage (as was to be assumed, but I always held a bit of hope that the Sapphics would win despite the odds). She is now with a man, and although we do not see him (just a painting of Héloïse with a child to confirm her new identity as a wife and mother) his presence is felt hugely as Marianne realises her lover is truly lost. The film’s final scene, in which Marianne gazes at an unknowing Héloïse as she listens to ‘Summer’ from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which the former played her at the French mansion, is an incredibly powerful depiction of the bond the women had — Héloïse is tearfully transfixed at the music her lover once played her, and we as an audience share Marianne’s intense gaze at her former paramour. While Sophie was able to access freedom through abortion from a local woman, Héloïse is trapped. However, she is at the concert alone — and perhaps she has specifically sought out one in which ‘Summer’ would be played, desperately trying to connect to her past.

And there is one more piece of hope; one more sign that Héloïse is carving out space for herself and looking back to her past with Marianne: her finger rests on page 28 of the book in her portrait with her child – the page which she asked Marianne to render herself nude on so that she would always have a remembrance of her lover. Héloïse, despite being married to a man, makes it clear that he is as invisible to her as any other man is to us in the film. So perhaps, rather than viewing the ending as a capitulation to Héloïse’s role as a woman in the early 1800s, we can interpret the film’s reflexivity as renewed dedication to portraying the desires of women without men. 

Caitlin Barr

Featured Image Source: Still via Youtube // Portrait of a Lady on Fire [Official Trailer] – In Theaters December 6, 2019 // Neon

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