Sophia Zhao

Historically, cinema has not been good to gay people. Or women. Or especially not gay women. Few films depict lesbians, and when they do, the characters are often hypersexualized or killed off — in short, lesbian stories are overwhelmingly molded by the Male Gaze. The Male Gaze, a term coined in 1975 by Laura Mulvey, describes the way in which mainstream film depicts the world from the point of view of a straight man. It reduces women to sexual objects, relegating them to roles that serve only to fulfill men’s desires and narratives (think superfluous nudity, manic pixie dream girls, or the plot of every movie produced in the 1980s). 

But “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is different. The French film, which was written and directed by noted lesbian filmmaker Céline Sciamma, is a queer, feminist cinematic masterpiece that portrays the firey romance of two women through the Female Gaze.

The story is set during the 18th century on a remote French island, where Marianne (Noémie Merlant) has been commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), so that Héloïse’s mom (Valeria Golino) can marry her daughter off to a Viennese suitor. The catch? Héloïse isn’t keen on the idea of sealing the deal with man she’s never met, so Marianne must paint surreptitiously, posing as a companion, taking in Héloïse’s form through stolen glances as the two take long walks on the picturesque seashore. Spoiler alert! They fall in love.

Perhaps this plot doesn’t seem revolutionary. Yes, it’s a period piece about two white ladies in an “aristocratic-world-problems” pickle. But it’s also one of the few mainstream movies about gay women that doesn’t filter itself through a heteronormative lens. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” dares to tell a lesbian love story through the eyes of the women living it. And that, in and of itself, is radical.

Let’s set the scene with some statistics: In 2019, women directed only 19% of the top 100 grossing films (source: Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film). And according to the Inclusion Initiative, just over 34% of speaking characters in top-grossing movies — straight or not — were women. So lesbians seldom get cinematic focus. And when they do, the result is often disappointing: popular lesbian movies tend to cater to stunted, sterotypical conceptions of female homosexuality. 

Take, for example, “Blue is the Warmest Colour,” a 2013 French romance by Abdellatif Kechiche. It is an adaptation repelate with protracted sex scenes and imbued with heterosexual fantasy that borders on pornographic. And this hyper-sexualization extended into the film’s production: Kechiche reportedly fostered an on-set environment so hostile and degrading that it made one lead actress feel “horrible… like a prostitute.” The application of the Male Gaze was so heavy-handed that the author of the original story remarked, upon watching the final product, “It appears to me this was what was missing on the set: lesbians.” 

Nevertheless, “Blue is the Warmest Colour” garnered widespread critical acclaim and a firm place in the queer cinematic canon. Its success exemplifies a certain formula that allows lesbian stories to succeed — so long as they conform to mainstream heterosexual narratives. Perhaps “Blue is the Warmest Colour” is gay in terms of content, but with its sans-queer creative team, blatant objectification of women, and fetishization of lesbian sex, it seems more a vehicle for exploitation than representation. Recently, an interviewer with “The Guardian” asked Sciamma about the film. She replied, simply, “I don’t give a fuck. I don’t give a shit about it.”

That “fuck ‘em” dogma carries through to Sciamma’s rejection of the Male Gaze in her own work. She flouts the parameters of depiction epitomized in “Blue is the Warmest Color.” Instead, Sciamma utilizes the Female Gaze to create an enrapturing, empathetic portrait of queer romance. This choice permates all elements of the film: where a director like Kechiche might throw in a sultry sex scene, Sciamma cuts; where a sensationalist screenwriter would include a melodramatic coming-out sequence, Sciamma refrains. It’s not about morality or slut-shaming. It’s about who films are made for, and which narratives about gay women we choose to uphold. 

There is danger in hyper-politicizing art; sometimes, a rose is just a rose. It’s a sad truth that any movie with gay protagonists becomes a “gay” movie; under this double standard, queer cinema is tasked with speaking on behalf of the queer community in a way that straight films are not (“American Pie,” for example, is not understood as “about” heterosexuality in the same way that “Call Me By Your Name” is “about” homosexuality). The tokenization requisite to art about underrepresented groups is stifling, and I would be remiss to gloss over the superb artistic merits of this film. Sciamma, an auteur with a strong minimalist sensibility, crafts her scenes with profound focus and restraint. No line of dialogue is superfluous; no shot is drawn-out or indulgent. There’s not even a soundtrack telling us, through dramatic orchestration, how to feel. Only diegetic music: Marianne serenading Héloïse, townswomen chanting around a fire. The visuals are strikingly beautiful, with lush canvas close-ups, vibrant oceanic hues, and meticulously composed frames. It’s imperative that we see “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” as what it is: an exceptional work of art.

But it’s also clear that Sciamma made this film with feminist and political intentions. In an interview with Vox, she rebuked how “the male gaze is obsessed with representing lesbians.” This, she argues, is because authentic lesbian stories “are really dangerous for the patriarchy,” and filtering them through dominant male perspectives is “a way to control it.” Thus, Sciamma made “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” a “manifesto about the female gaze,” as a way to produce “new narratives” that challenge this power structure. Consequently, everything from the film’s plot to its masterful cinematography works in service of this project, this feminist reassertion of perspective.

The very conceit of the film is an explicit manifestation of the Male Gaze: Marianne’s whole job, after all, is to craft an image of Héloïse to please a potential husband. This theme develops when Marianne presents the finished portrait to Héloïse, who responds, “Is that how you see me?” Marianne explains that the painting must conform to classical artistic “rules, conventions, ideas” (which, traditionally, have hegemonically depicted women through the eyes of male artists). Héloïse stares at the portrait and delivers the final blow with her trademark candor: “The fact it isn’t close to me, that I can understand. But I find it sad it isn’t close to you.” Such is the pernicious power of the Male Gaze: unwittingly, Marianne has rendered Héloïse in service of the million entangled expectations that objectify, harm, and constrict women. As soon as Héloïse exits, Marianne destroys the painting and begins again.

This project of focusing on the Female Gaze extends beyond the central romance: Sciamma also incorperates a storyline about Sophie, the young maid, getting an abortion. Later, Marianne recreates the moment in a painting, reframing the hyper-politicized act from a woman’s point of view. Similarly, the film frequently draws on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. It’s a timeless tale of Orpheus looking at his lover rather than saving her life; this motif serves to deepen the tension between Héloïse and Marianne borne by their inevitable demise. In Sciamma’s words, it’s “basically about how the male gaze can kill you,” about the deadly implications of a man choosing the image of a woman over the woman herself.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” has been a critical hit, winning “Best Screenplay” at the Cannes film festival and making Sciamma the first woman to recieve the Queer Palm. Through artistic and political excellence, it has blazed the trail for stories that depict lesbian love how lesbians themseveles see it: not as a vehicle for fufillment of male fantasy, but as, simply, love. 

In one powerful scene, Marianne meets the unfinished portrait made by the previous painter, a man who failed to capture Héloïse. It’s a haunting image, depicting Héloïse’s body, dress, and background — but with only blank canvas for her face. Through Marianne’s eyes, we see how he got Héloïse wrong, how he misrepresented her hands, jewelry, posture. It seems that while looking at Héloïse, the man forgot to see her.

Maybe mere representation isn’t necessarily powerful, but radical representation — the kind present in this film, the kind that demands narrative justice, the kind that reasserts control over co-opted stories — is. The Female Gaze, Sciamma demonstrates, is powerful. As the credits roll, the audience might question why we have let one perspective dominate for so long, and how we might, like Marianne, set fire to the false portrayals made about, not for, us, watch them burn, and begin again. Destroy them, and begin again.

Zoe Larkin | zoe.larkin@yale.edu