A Subverted Gaze: Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire


Ellie Parnham explores the subversion of the male gaze in Céline Sciamma's latest release

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Image by Curzon Artificial Eye

By Ellie Parnham

This article contains spoilers

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“Equality is a pleasant feeling.” – Héloïse.

French director Céline Sciamma has gifted the cinematic world again. Her latest, A Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is a lesson on the subversion of the ‘scopophilic’ (gaining pleasure from looking) tendencies of the male-gaze and the eradication of power imbalance which comes with sexual difference. Portrait bears witness to an equality, as the boundaries which so often in cinema constrain the female form to object are furiously destroyed, giving way for liberation, partnership and love.

Laura Mulvey coined the term ‘male-gaze’ in her assessment on the pleasure of viewing in cinema. She says: 'The determining male gaze projects phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly.' Mulvey is addressing the sexism inherent in cinematic performance as the female character, frozen into object, is shaped to please not only the male counterpart, but the audience of male spectators.

In Portrait, a painter is sent to paint a portrait of a lady. The friendship and later relationship between Marianne and Héloïse is achingly slow, spun beautifully within Sciamma’s narrative of image-making and viewing. Within this dynamic, the director makes it easy for us to see her subverted gaze as it is manifested literally within the painting process. As the lines between viewing subject and viewed object blur, the gaze of the painter is inverted, allowing for a deeply moving moment of equality and collaboration.

In an interview, Adèle Haenel (Héloïse) comments on the muse. She says: “the muse is an invention to make women passive.” This is not to do away with the primeval concept, I am not suggesting that the likes of Homer and Virgil are wrong to call upon it; but when used simply to ground a man’s idea in the abstract at the expense of a women’s visibility, its purpose must be reconsidered. In Portrait, the equality between female and female and the painter and the work subverts the muse not only because of their sexual sameness but also by allowing the muse to become an active participant in the narrative.  The female object is ‘un-mused’ into a reality who breathes, exists, acts and cannot be denied.

The danger of confining the female form to fantasy is addressed through the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. As told by Ovid, Orpheus frees his wife from the underworld on the condition that he does not look back to her. Out of love and doubt he fails, turns, and Eurydice is lost forever. This follows Mulvey’s idea of the ‘active/male and passive/female.’ Eurydice is passive in the story, her fate determined by Orpheus’ glance. As the women discuss the myth, Héloïse suggests “perhaps she was the one who said, ‘turn around.’” Immediately, the agency is returned to Eurydice and her fate is determined by her own actions and not his.

The homosexual nature of Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship disrupts the sexual imbalance of the gaze. Their sameness allows for their total equality.  There is no delineation; they are both active, they are both passive. In one scene as Héloïse is posing, Marianne comments on her gestures, observing her as a painter observes their object. This power dynamic is blitzed when Héloïse says: “We are in the same place. If you look at me, who do I look at?” As the painter is gazed back upon, the power shifts to balance as the object paradoxically becomes the subject.

The final scene, which lingers on Héloïse’s profile as Marianne sees her, is coupled with the final line “she did not see me”. The male gaze which has been so wonderfully deconstructed is pieced back together within the boundaries of the patriarchy and the women are separated, concluding the film with a sobering bittersweetness mixed up with a quiet relief that it had happened and they had enjoyed, briefly, an equality that would stay with them forever.

Yes, this film is a fantastic blast of queer rep. But more than that, it permits the total equality in a relationship which is allowed when the gaze is removed, the power imbalance shifted, and the freedom that comes when women are no longer objectified but set free to act, speak, and love as they please.

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire is available to watch on MUBI with a 30-day free trial.