“Propaganda for the Self”: Understanding the Female Gaze through Portrait of a Lady on Fire

“Propaganda for the Self”: Understanding the Female Gaze through Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

Part 1: Liberation from the Male Gaze

On an island off the Breton coast in the late 18thcentury, a woman, Marianne, stands behind an easel and canvas. The camera frames Marianne at work. Most of her body is obscured, but her eyes conjure details to enhance her painting. She faces another woman—her subject, Héloïse. The camera shows Héloïse from the waist up, framed like a Baroque portrait. Marianne cannot capture her expression. “I can't make you smile. I feel I do it and then it vanishes.” “Forgive me, I'd hate to be in your place,” she apologizes. Héloïse responds abruptly. “We're in the same place. Exactly the same place.” She calls Marianne over to stand in her position asking “If you look at me, who do I look at?” Marianne regards the easel from Héloïse’s perspective before returning to her station behind the canvas. The camera shows Marianne, pulled back from its original closeup, now shooting her from the waist up just as Héloïse was framed before. We cut back to Héloïse, now framed in Marianne’s original close-up. The subject and the object have been inverted.

This question “If you look at me, who do I look at?” is central to 2019’s Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), written and directed by Céline Sciamma. Sciamma describes her film as a “manifesto on ‘the Female Gaze,’” reimagining the relationship between the artist and the muse. The film portrays the artist/muse relationship from Marianne’s perspective, beginning years after meeting Héloïse. At the film’s outset, Marianne is teaching fine art to young women in Paris. One of her students pulls a painting out of the classroom’s stock of a young woman facing away on a desolate landscape at dusk, dress set ablaze. This painting, entitled Portrait of a Lady on Fire, prompts Marianne to remember arriving at a house on a remote Breton island several years prior. She has been tasked with painting the betrothal portrait of a young aristocratic woman (Héloïse) whose marriage has been arranged with a Milanese nobleman. Her suitor demands to see a portrait prior to their marriage, but Héloïse has refused to pose. Héloïse’s mother (The Countess) tells Marianne she must paint her portrait in secret—she is presented as a walking companion for Héloïse where she will have the opportunity to study her face. Marianne and Héloïse walk daily along the island’s rugged cliffs, and Marianne paints her portrait by night. They come to know each other as the days progress, sharing books and playing the Presto from Vivaldi’s “Summer” on the harpsichord together. During a meeting with the Countess, Marianne requests that she be the one to confess the ruse and show Héloïse her portrait. When Marianne reveals the portrait, Héloïse responds “Is that how you see me?” Marianne defends the portrait, arguing that her perspective is not the only one that matters. “There are rules, conventions, ideas.” Héloïse retorts “The fact it isn't close to me, that I can understand. But I find it sad it isn't close to you.” In retaliation, Marianne wipes the face off the canvas with a turpentine-soaked rag. Héloïse tells her mother she will pose for a portrait to replace the one Marianne destroyed, and the Countess leaves for several days expecting the portrait to be finished by the time she returns. Marianne and Héloïse start the process over as collaborators and develop a friendship along with Sophie, the housemaid. The three women play cards together, cook meals, read and discuss Ovid’s retelling of “Orpheus and Eurydice” in Metamorphoses, and assist Sophie in obtaining an abortion. Through their work on the portrait, Marianne and Héloïse develop a romantic relationship, and their intimacy informs their collaboration, eliminating the boundaries between subject and object. When the Countess returns from the mainland, Marianne and Héloïse exchange a fraught emotional goodbye under her gaze. Years later in Paris, Marianne sees Héloïse twice after leaving the island. Once, as a portrait in a Louvre salon, now painted as a wife and mother, and a final time, at a concert hall from across the auditorium (Héloïse does not see her). The final shot of the film is two and half minutes long and shows Héloïse listening to the symphony, the Presto from Vivaldi’s “Summer,” overwhelmed by emotion and initially crying, but by the end of the shot, smiling.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the fourth of Sciamma’s now five feature films, was critically acclaimed after its release. In the spring of 2019 at the Cannes Film Festival, it was awarded Best Screenplay and the Queer Palm (Sciamma was the first woman to win this prize). In June of 2020, it was added to the Criterion Collection. In 2022, the British Film Institute's Sight and Sound Critics’ Poll, a prestigious list published every ten years, ranked Portrait as the 30th greatest film of all time, making it the highest ranked movie on the list to come out after 2001 (Mulholland Drive is ranked 8th). The film has also come to represent a turning point in France’s reconciliation with the #MeToo movement. At the 45th César awards in 2020, Portrait was nominated for nine awards including Best Director and Script for Sciamma, and Best Actress for the film’s two leads, Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel (Sciamma’s former partner and longtime collaborator). At the end of the ceremony, Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty to the rape of a thirteen-year-old girl in the U.S. in 1978 and has subsequently been accused of assault by a dozen other women, was awarded Best Director for the film An Officer and a Spy. When the award was announced, Haenel and Sciamma stood up and left the room along with several others, Haenel yelling “Bravo pedophilia!” as she exited. In 2019, Haenel came forward about her own experience of sexual assault, accusing director Christophe Ruggia of repeatedly assaulting and harassing her between the ages of twelve and fifteen while filming and promoting Les Diables (The Devils) (2002). Ruggia has since been delisted from the Société des Réalisateurs de Films (SRF) and indicted for sexual assault of a minor. The 45th César Awards elicited a widespread response from the film industry and beyond; in an article for Liberation, France’s left-leaning daily newspaper, noted feminist critic Virginie Despentes responded to the walk-out saying “You can present it to us in all tones, your imbecility of separation between the man and the artist—all the victims of artist rape know that there is no miraculous division between the violated body and the creative body... Celebrate each other, humiliate each other, kill, rape, exploit, destroy everything you can get your hands on. We get up and get out.” Sciamma and Haenel were both signatories for Le Collectif 50/50, an organization formed in 2018 to promote gender equity in cinema with the goal of gender parity by the year 2020. And in May of 2023, Haenel announced she was formally leaving the film industry in a letter to the French cultural magazine Télérama saying “I decided to politicize my cessation of cinema to denounce the general complacency of the profession towards sexual attackers and, more generally, the way in which this environment collaborates with the deadly racist ecocidal order of the world as it exists.”

Sciamma and Haenel’s perspectives are not universally shared in French cinema. In 2018, one hundred prominent women including Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Millet signed an open letter in the French newspaper Le Monde claiming the #MeToo movement and its French equivalent “#BalanceTonPorc” had overstepped and encouraged puritanism saying “men have been punished summarily or forced out of their jobs when all they did was touch someone's knee or try to steal a kiss.” The signatories of this letter not only seek to defend romance by deemphasizing consent they also uphold men’s “freedom to annoy [importuner].” Portrait represents a destabilizing moment for existing portrayals of eroticism in media, which have historically served “the Male Gaze,” a concept whose existence in cinema is rooted in feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s 1973 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The theory of the male gaze describes the cinematic techniques put in place by men to sexualize and diminish the female object and empower the male subject. Mulvey establishes that the role of women in cinema has been to “[stand] in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma begs the question: what happens when women become the makers of meaning? Through her employment of the female gaze, Sciamma articulates the factors that make it possible for women to be seen, unpacks how the female gaze functions, and helps the viewer understand what becomes possible when women “see” other women.

Sciamma’s films speculate on the existential possibilities that become available for women when they are separated from men. The first man we see in Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a sailor who transports Marianne to the island in the first five minutes of the film, and we do not see another man on screen until the sailor returns to retrieve her an hour and thirty-five minutes later. The absence of men from Portrait does not free the female characters from their influence. The Countess represents the expectations of patriarchal society in the film—she dictates where her daughter lives, who she marries, and the daily goings-on in the house—but her positionality is more nuanced. In a scene between her and Marianne, she discusses her memories of Milan saying “I can't wait to go back. I haven't gone back in twenty years. Tell her Milan is beautiful. And that life will be sweeter... I'm not marrying her to the local gentry. I'm trying to take her elsewhere. She'll be less bored there,” to which Marianne responds “And you too.” “Indeed. Why not?” the Countess says. The Countess is ambitious—she resents her detachment from the world and longs for the freedom of a city saturated with art, music, and social life. She uses her daughter’s marriage as a means to satisfy her ambitions, and she is not the first family member to pawn their circumstances off on Héloïse. It is revealed by Sophie that Héloïse’s sister was initially betrothed to the Milanese suitor, but she perished after falling from the island’s beachside cliffs. Marianne asks Héloïse if she suspects her sister took her own life, to which Héloïse responds “Yes. In her last letter, she apologized. For no reason.” Marianne asks “What could she be apologizing for?” “For leaving me her fate,” Héloïse says. In her 1990 book Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel, Princeton professor Claudia L. Johnson discusses women’s political autonomy in the context of Charlotte Smith’s 1792 epistolary novel Desmond saying “every major aspect of women’s lives already serves a political agenda. Whereas it had before been implicit, it was now unavoidably plain that women’s education, their manners, their modesty, their reading, their opinions about personal happiness, their power of choice in matrimony, and their expectations from married life were all matters of increasingly anxious public concern,” (Smith 2-3). These aristocratic women have limited means to alter their circumstances. The Countess determines where and how she lives based on whom she marries her children to; Héloïse’s sister could have accepted her suitor’s proposal by continuing to live or rejected it by choosing to die. Héloïse is faced with the same decision as her sister, but rather than choosing to die, she opts to prolong the marriage’s inevitability by refusing to pose for the betrothal portrait. Héloïse shares the same desire for agency as her mother and sister. Prior to her betrothal, Héloïse was preparing to become a Benedictine nun. She describes her life in the convent to Marianne saying “It's a life that has advantages. There's a library. You can sing or hear music. And equality is a pleasant feeling.” Héloïse’s mother’s departure from the house briefly removes the patriarchal presence from Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie’s world. Sciamma describes this shift in the 2019 Cannes press packet for Portrait saying “Their bodies become their own when they are allowed to relax, when vigilance wanes, when there is no longer the gaze of protocol, when they are alone. I wanted to return their friendships and questions to them, their attitudes, their humour, their desire to run.”

Characters’ separation from patriarchal surveillance and their subsequent liberation is throughline in Sciamma’s filmography. Her first feature film, 2007’s Naissance des pieuvres (Water Lilies), was the first installment in her “coming of age” trilogy also featuring Tomboy (2011) and Bande de filles (Girlhood) (2014). In Water Lilies, Marie, a shy fifteen-year-old girl, attends her friend Anne’s synchronized swimming presentation. During the performance, she also watches the advanced team’s program and becomes enamored with the team captain Floriane (also played by Adèle Haenel). Marie meets Floriane at a party and asks if she can watch the team practice. Initially standoffish, Floriane reluctantly agrees on the condition that Marie provide a cover so she can meet with the boy she has been seeing, François. Marie agrees to her terms, and as she accompanies Floriane on her outings to meet François, the two girls develop a friendship. Floriane reveals to Marie that she feels hesitant about having sex with François but believes if she does not, her socially advantageous promiscuous reputation will be exposed. She asks Marie if she will take her virginity so that the first person that she has sex with will be someone meaningful saying “I want it to be you, Marie. I'd like you to be my first one. That you will do it for me and release me from it. Then, it will be real.” Marie and Floriane have sex, and the following day at a party, Marie watches Floriane flirt with a member of the men’s swim team. Marie brings Floriane to the bathroom and confronts her. Marie kisses her, and Floriane says “You see... it wasn’t so difficult.” Floriane then returns to the party to continue flirting with the boy telling Marie “If he’s a jerk, come and rescue me.” In his 2011 book Brutal Intimacy: Analyzing Contemporary French Cinema, Tim Palmer highlights the necessary exclusion of adults from Water Lilies, saying “In the transition from script to screen, Sciamma removed all mention of parents and families: the girls are left with no on-screen home lives, they don’t share meals with mothers or fathers, they never attend school, and they inhabit deserted houses,” (Palmer 34). The isolation from adults accomplishes the same goal in Water Lilies that the Countess’s departure from the house accomplishes in Portrait—the two young women have the uninterrupted space to have honest conversations about their experiences and desires. Feminist criticism has consistently emphasized the necessity of “a room of one’s own” for women to be able to engage in generative thought and creative pursuits. In her 1991 essay “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” Eve Sedgwick centers the imaginative autoeroticism that exists in scenes where Austen’s heroines are left to “the love-drenched tableaux of [their] imagination.” For purposes of this argument, I refer to masturbation not just as the physical act of self-pleasure, but any solitary exercise of self-discovery. Sedgwick’s essay posits that the surveillance of young women in Austen’s work “creates both the consciousness and the privacy of the novel[s].” A key instance of this phenomenon comes from Northanger Abbey: the protagonist Catherine Morland leaves home for the first time at seventeen to take in the social season in Bath. She is obsessed with Ann Radcliffe's Gothic novel Mysteries of Udolpho, and in one scene she arrives late to a meeting with a friend who asks her “my dearest Catherine, what have you been doing with yourself all this morning? Have you gone on with Udolpho?” She responds saying “Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke.” Sedgwick’s theory allows us to draw a correlation between Catherine reading in solitude, her lateness to this meeting, and eroticism, with Mysteries of Udolpho facilitating personal discoveries about the self, aesthetics, romance, and sexuality. Sedgwick campaigns for the necessity of “[dealing] with your own terror, your own arousal, your disavowals, in your own way, on your own time, in your own privacy,” (Sedgewick 835).

Water Lilies uses this liberation from vigilance to establish a dichotomy between expectations of eroticism and reality. Throughout the film, Floriane describes sex with François as a tiresome inevitability; whenever they get close to sex, she runs. Marie accompanies her on visits with François, loitering in vacant parks while they spend time together, but when Marie refuses to continue covering for Floriane, saying “I’m not coming anymore. Sort out your fucks alone,” Floriane cancels her plans with François to spend the afternoon with Marie. The two girls traverse the poured-concrete landscape of Cergy-Pontoise, a suburban community established in the Parisian suburbs in the 1960s where Sciamma grew up, and Floriane reveals the sexual harassment she has endured from male coaches on the synchronized swimming team. Marie is no longer an object Floriane uses to facilitate her relationship with a boy; she becomes a confidant and resource. After this scene, they go to Floriane’s house, and Floriane gives Marie one of her old, synchronized swimming costumes to try on. Marie’s infatuation with Floriane is contingent on her mastery of the highly technical skill of synchronized swimming, a fascination that Sciamma borrows from her upbringing. In her 2023 profile by Elif Batuman for The New Yorker, Sciamma recounts attending a synchronized swimming competition as a teenager and being transfixed by the performers. Batuman writes “She went home, feeling strange, troubled, troublée: ‘Why am I feeling so torn by synchronized swimming?’ She thought it was because she had ‘missed her life.’ Clearly, her true call has been synchronized swimming. Now it was too late... After a few days contemplating the ruin of her life, Sciamma realized, ‘O.K., I’m gay.’” The rigor of this athletic spectacle and sexuality is linked for Sciamma and her protagonist. When Floriane gives Marie her old swimsuit and symbolically invites her into this exclusive world, Marie embodies Floriane’s athletic prowess and feels the intimacy of close contact with this person. In the privacy of Floriane’s bedroom, Marie shares her thoughts on aesthetics and mortality saying “The ceiling is probably the last thing people see. At least for 90% of the people who die... And if you die, the last thing you see will be printed in your eye. Like a photograph. Imagine all those people with ceilings in their eyes.” This moment speaks to the importance of “looking” in Water Lilies: if Marie had the courage to look directly at Floriane, perhaps she would be the last thing she saw if she died in that moment. The undercurrent of anxiety that mediates their interactions, prompted by their different social statuses, levels of sexual experience, and maturity, complicates the act of looking. Cued by Marie, Floriane turns over in bed and looks directly at her saying “Ceilings will never be the same,” then holds her hand. This moment reinforces the central question in Portrait: “If you look at me, who do I look at?”

Marie’s fixation on death elicited by romantic intimacy is reminiscent of the character Therese from Patricia Highsmith’s seminal queer novel, 1952’s The Price of Salt, better known for its film adaptation, Carol (2015), directed by Todd Haynes. In the novel, Therese, a shop assistant at a New York City department store, meets socialite Carol Aird when she purchases a Christmas present for her daughter at her counter. Their attraction evolves into a romantic relationship, and in one scene early in the novel, Carol drives Therese from New York to her house in New Jersey which Highsmith describes saying “They roared into the Lincoln Tunnel. A wild, inexplicable excitement mounted in Therese as she stared through the windshield. She wished the tunnel might cave in and kill them both, that their bodies might be dragged out together,” (Highsmith 46). In his influential 1977 structuralist exploration of love and language Fragments d’un discours amoureux (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments), French literary theorist Roland Barthes discusses the relationship between suicidal ideation and romance in the chapter “Ideas of Solution” arguing “If [the lover] sees himself sequestered, departed, or dead, what he sees is always a lover... This kind of identity of the problem and its solution precisely defines the trap: I am trapped because it lies outside my reach to change systems... If it were not the ‘nature’ of amorous madness to pass, to cease of itself, no one could ever put an end to it (it is not because he is dead that Werther has stopped being in love, quite the contrary),” (Barthes 143). Barthes recognizes the appeal of fantasizing about death while in love; if the lover were to die, their love would be immortalized—frozen forever in one’s eye. If their love is unrequited, the love is legitimized in death. However, Barthes also recognizes the lover’s powerlessness to change systems, articulating Therese and Marie’s fixation on death as a symptom of “amorous madness.” Much like the connection between Therese and Carol in The Price of Salt, or Marianne and Héloïse, the intimacy that develops between Marie and Floriane in these scenes is facilitated by intermediaries’ presence in the margins; François waiting in the park, Floriane’s parents somewhere in the house. The sensation of getting away with their transgression makes it more meaningful.

Sciamma expands on her lexicon of creative eroticism that flourishes when vigilance wanes in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, particularly in the scene where Héloïse, Marianne, and Sophie read the myth of “Orpheus and Eurydice” from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Countess has left for the mainland, and they have just prepared a meal together: the aristocrat Héloïse cooking, the artist Marianne pouring wine, and the servant Sophie embroidering flowers. The roles these three women take on dismantle the strictures of class that previously governed their relationships. Héloïse reads from Marianne’s copy of Metamorphoses, and each woman offers her interpretation of Orpheus’ choice to turn back at the edge of the underworld, dooming Eurydice to eternity in Hades. Sophie contends that Orpheus being madly in love with Eurydice to the point that he cannot resist turning around “doesn’t make sense,” as “those were precisely the instructions he was given.” Marianne expands on Sophie’s argument saying “It’s not that he’s unable to resist. Maybe if he turns around, it’s because he’s making a choice... He chooses the memory of Eurydice... He doesn’t make the lover’s choice. He makes the poet’s choice.” Héloïse expands the argument further: “Maybe she was the one who said to him: turn around.” Like The Mysteries of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses resurfaces throughout Portrait and elicits aesthetic and erotic self-reflection from these three characters. When Héloïse meets Marianne, she asks if she brought any books with her and Marianne loans Héloïse her copy; the three women read it and debate it over dinner; and after Marianne and Héloïse admit their attraction to each other, Héloïse asks for a portrait of Marianne to remember her by which Marianne draws on page twenty-eight of the book. Sciamma commented on the role of the book in Portrait during the press tour arguing that during the 18th century, art was more difficult to access: “If you have a book, you’ll read it twenty times. If you want to hear music, you have to go to church.” Much like The Mysteries of Udolpho allows Catherine Morland to transplant herself into the Gothic world, Metamorphoses provides narratives which Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie use to make sense of their circumstances. In Marianne and Héloïse’s final scene together at the house, Marianne descends the stairs to leave the house and Héloïse yells from the landing “Turn around.” This intertextual moment with the myth speaks to the film’s arguments both about the power that comes from truly “seeing” the beloved—the power to generate intimacy and the power to kill—and about the choice to relish the memory of romance, rather than fallaciously imagining that Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship could have flourished outside this house. The film refuses to engage in anachronism, understanding that it would ultimately be disrespectful to its characters.

Portrait acts as a conduit for the viewer’s experiences of love and loss; during the press tour for Portrait, regarding the final scene where Héloïse listens to Vivaldi, Sciamma described how she wanted the viewer to begin by watching the character Héloïse, then as the shot progresses, recognize that they are watching the actor Adèle Haenel playing Héloïse, and then begin to sublimate themselves into the scene and consider their own romantic experiences. Barthes discusses the constant dialogue that exists between art and one’s meditation on desire in the Lover’s Discourse chapter entitled “I want to understand,” saying “Coming out of the movie theater, alone, mulling over my ‘problem,’ my lover’s problem which the film has been unable to make me forget, I utter this strange cry: not: make it stop! but: I want to understand (what’s happening to me) !” (Barthes 60). This passage brings to mind Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting of a female usher standing in a hallway of a movie theatre auditorium entitled New York Movie. The usher stands outside the theatre’s auditorium, clearly affected by the content of the film being shown in the next room. New York Movie prompts the argument that people like this usher who work in the arts choose their careers for the constant access to art that otherwise would be less feasible and for the emotional catharsis that becomes accessible when one is constantly surrounded by art. Like the usher in Hopper’s painting, we can read Marianne’s vocation as a  portraitist as a means to consistently access to fine art in a time where aesthetic resources were so limited, especially for women. It is a political choice as much as an aesthetic pursuit, considering how little mobility women in the 18th century had in terms of career prospects.

After Sciamma establishes the factors that make it possible for women to see and be seen, the viewer begins to understand what truly being seen looks like. In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey argues that there are three experiences to consider when critiquing the male gaze in cinema: the spectator, the filmmaker, and the actors. Todd Haynes’ Carol illustrates how these criteria sexualize and diminish the female object. While Carol remains an incredibly influential film which has provided mainstream visibility for the experiences of queer women, in recent years, the film adaptation has been criticized for its predatory depiction of the relationship between Carol and Therese, and the objectification of both women during scenes of intimacy. The sex scene between Carol and Therese, which comes at about the two-thirds mark in the film, is an excellent example of how the male gaze manifests in cinematic portrayals of women. Carol and Therese have left New York on a road trip to Chicago, stopping intermittently at different hotels where Carol’s seduction of Therese evolves. They arrive in Waterloo, Iowa, on New Years’ Eve and spend the evening celebrating together. As the clock strikes midnight, Therese sits in front of a mirror in their room with Carol standing behind her. Carol slowly removes her robe, revealing her body to Therese who sits tentatively in front of her, then Carol leans down, grabs Therese’s face and kisses her. Therese hesitates, then kisses her back, and Carol commands “take me to bed.” What follows is a standard example of a male gaze-driven scene of intimacy between two women meant to elicit a very specific reaction from the audience. The filmmaker has segmented the characters’ bodies by filming them in a patchwork of different shots: a stomach, a back, breasts, etc. There is no dialogue. Sweeping orchestral music underscores the sex, taking the spectator out of the reality of their intimacy and sublimating it into a dreamlike, erotic vision. The spectator gets no sense of the personalities and perspectives of these two characters as they have sex for the first time—the sex act is the focus of the scene, rather than the implications that the sex has for the two characters. This variety of sex scene is omnipresent in films about queer women directed by men: La vie d'Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Color) (2013) directed by Abdellatif Kechiche features a nearly ten-minute-long sex scene between the actors Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos which has been almost uniformly regarded by critics as gratuitous and objectifying. The characters played by Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet in Ammonite (2020) directed by Francis Lee, another queer period film which came out the year after Portrait, are so underdeveloped that their sex scene was spoofed in the 2021 SNL sketch “Lesbian Period Drama” with the narrator describing it as “a sex scene so graphic you’ll think ‘Oh right. A man directed this.’” Therese’s narration in Highsmith’s novel is forthright about her attraction to Carol and their mutual desire for each other, while Haynes’ adaptation removes much of Therese’s enthusiastic desire for Carol from the formation of their relationship making their attraction seemingly arise out of nowhere.

In an interview discussing the process of filming Portrait, Adèle Haenel states she wanted to dispel the concept of two characters “falling in love without understanding why,” allowing the two principal characters to be agents of their desires rather than subjects to feelings whose realities escape then. The female gaze removes the ambiguities central to films like Carol, Ammonite, and Blue is the Warmest Color, contending that the presence of enthusiastic consent from both parties is essential to fully realizing the films’ female characters. In the latter half of this essay, I will explain how the female gaze operates in Portrait, and in other films’ of Sciamma’s oeuvre, and what the potential that exists within the female gaze says about the future of cinema, and about its past.

Part 2: Empowerment Through the Female Gaze

Throughout the press tour for her 2019 internationally acclaimed film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, writer/director Céline Sciamma described her metacinematic experience as a director observing the actress Noémie Merlant as she played the film’s protagonist, an artist, tasked with observing a young aristocrat, played by actress Adèle Haenel, in order to paint her portrait. This experience of recognizing both what it feels like to truly see someone, and to be seen yourself, is essential to Sciamma’s command of “the Female Gaze” in Portrait. In an interview with UK-based film journalist Stefan Pape, Merlant says Portrait presents “a new way of telling and inventing love and erotism because this movie... [is] really about horizontal gazes between the women,” and this aspect of “horizontal gaze” is palpable throughout the film. In their 2016 Toronto International Film Festival Masterclass, writer and director Joey Soloway, best known as the showrunner for the Amazon series Transparent, defines the female gaze in filmmaking, breaking its components down into three key elements: “the feeling camera,” which prioritizes emotions over action; “returning the gaze,” showing the actors mutually acknowledging each other (i.e. “I see you seeing me;”) and “the gazed gaze,” showing viewers how it feels to be the object of the gaze. These three elements correspond to the elements of the male gaze explored in Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”: “the feeling camera” taking the place of “the filmmaker’s” perspective, “returning the gaze” articulating the experiences between the actors, and “the gazed gaze” addressing the experiences of “the spectator.” In this portion of the essay, I will use these categories to understand how the female gaze functions in Portrait, beginning with “the feeling camera.”

In her 2020 BAFTA Screenwriters lecture entitled “Ready for the Rising Tide,” Sciamma discusses organizing a film’s “desires” and “needs” into two lists. “The first list is very free. It’s a list of ideas for scenes, sometimes just images, a line of dialogue. They have no connection with one another, and often no connection yet to the plot of the film. For Portrait of a Lady on Fire, my first list was: having Adèle Haenel run fast towards the edge of a cliff; actually setting fire to the character; an abortion being painted; a group of women singing an unknown tune in the night; a sentence: ‘Don’t regret, remember;’ and the last scene of the film: a long take on a character listening to Vivaldi’s ‘Summer’ in a concert hall.” She then discusses the role of the “needed” scenes list—the scenes that advance the movie’s plot or “bridge” the scenes she wants—and how Portrait inspired her to reject this list as essential to telling the film’s story: “I am being radical with this belief. At the stage of my fourth film I decided to get rid of the scenes which had been sticking for too long in the ‘needed’ list. I just erased them. It puts you in a position where you now have two scenes you want without the bridge of the scene you need. But it actually produces editing within the script and confronts you to new narratives or rhythm—makes you be more experimental.” In Rachel Syme’s 2019 New Yorker article “‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ Is More Than a ‘Manifesto on the female gaze,’” Syme writes about the memoir L’événement (Happening) by Annie Ernaux: “She mourns the lack of great works of art that affirm or even depict her experience. ‘I do not believe there exists a “Workshop of the Backstreet Abortionist” in any museum in the world.’” While Portrait centers a love story, it is also a story about sorority between the characters Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie. Sophie, played by Luàna Bajrami, presents one of the most compelling plots in the film: obtaining an abortion for an unwanted pregnancy. The erasure of female painters from the proliferation of 18th century portraitists goes hand in hand with Ernaux’s frustration, and Portrait seeks to depict these experiences which have been excluded from the world of fine art. Halfway through the film, Sophie reveals that she has missed her period for three months, and that she does not want to continue with this pregnancy. In the following scene, Sophie runs on the beach back and forth between Marianne and Héloïse, bringing to mind the image of Death and Antonius playing chess on the beach in The Seventh Seal, in an effort to induce miscarriage. The three women scour the beach for herbs which Sophie ingests back at the house after hanging by her hands from the rafters in the kitchen. Sophie collapses after ingesting the herbs, and Marianne and Héloïse bring her to Marianne’s bedroom. Later, Sophie, Marianne, and Héloïse attend a gathering of several dozen women from the island—they chat, drink wine, and sing around a large bonfire. Sophie speaks to an older woman who informs her that her attempt to miscarry was unsuccessful and that she will need to visit her in two days to terminate the pregnancy. Marianne and Héloïse accompany Sophie to the appointment. She lies on a bed and elevates her legs as per the abortionist’s direction; a little girl and a baby play on the bed beside her, Sophie holding the baby’s hand throughout the procedure. Marianne, initially squeamish, turns away from the scene, but returns her gaze after Héloïse implores her to watch. This is a critical instance of Sciamma’s use of the “feeling camera;” crucially, the camera does not show Sophie’s genitals as the abortionist performs the dilation and curettage. We watch her face while the procedure is performed and she processes both the relief of terminating the unwanted pregnancy and physical pain, prioritizing her emotions over the act of abortion itself.  Later after the three women return to the house, Héloïse asks Sophie if she feels well enough to stand, and stages Sophie and herself in a pose replicating her abortion, telling Marianne “Get your things. We're going to paint.” The three women artistically replicating the procedure demonstrates the evolution from “the feeling camera” to “returning the gaze,” using what they witnessed earlier to memorialize her experience.

The first half of Portrait addresses Marianne’s attempts to capture Héloïse’s essence via portrait through the discreet glances she takes during their walks. Her efforts to produce an initial portrait fails to represent her subject, while also confusing Héloïse about Marianne’s intentions. There are mesmerizing moments in the film where Sciamma films Marianne discretely looking at Héloïse, then Héloïse meeting her gaze and Marianne immediately turning the opposite direction. In one scene, Héloïse returns from mass and says to Marianne “In solitude, I felt the liberty you spoke of. But I also felt your absence.” In Sciamma’s notes in the shooting script, she writes “This sentence goes straight to Marianne’s heart but Héloïse doesn’t see it, since she has her back to her.” The gaze is not returned, causing further emotional complications between the two characters. Once Marianne confesses to Héloïse that she was brought to the island to paint her portrait, Héloïse notes “It explains all your looks.” It is not until the second half of the movie after Marianne’s purpose on the island has been revealed that genuine emotional connection can flourish between the two characters. When asked about preparing for the film, Haenel says “I tried to create a kind of character that would evolve because of [Marianne’s] gaze...that would be traveling from being an object to being a subject.” The scene in which Héloïse confronts Marianne’s supposition that she as the model does not reciprocally perceive Marianne as the artist represents a turning point in the film. At the beginning of the scene, Marianne apologizes to Héloïse for being dishonest, knowing her duplicity has hurt her by pointing to a series of physical habits Héloïse performs as signs of her discomfort: “When you're moved, you do this [wiping her lips] with your hand... And when you're embarrassed, you bite your lips. And when you're annoyed, you don't blink.” Héloïse challenges Marianne’s aloofness, asking “If you look at me, who do I look at?” She retaliates, saying “When you don't know what to say, you touch your forehead. When you lose control, you raise your eyebrows. And when you're troubled, you breathe through your mouth.” This reversal is a key instance of Héloïse “returning the gaze,” and the parallel structure rhetorical technique resurfaces at the end of the film. Marianne and Héloïse have admitted their attraction to each other, and on their final night together, they lay in bed attempting to prolong their time together. Héloïse tells Marianne that she feels a new emotion: “regret.” Marianne redirects her, saying “Don't regret, remember,” and begins to list the aspects of their relationship she will remember after she leaves. “I'll remember when you fell asleep in the kitchen,” “I'll remember the first time you laughed.” Heloise matches Marianne saying “I'll remember... your dark look when I beat you at cards,” and “I'll remember the first time I wanted to kiss you.” Their tender back-and-forth in this scene mirrors the balletic exchange of glances at the film’s beginning, and their jousting over the relationship between subject and objects in the middle of the film.

When describing the frame narrative device of Portrait in her BAFTA lecture, Sciamma articulates her desire to “write the present of a love story, how it is born and how it grows patiently, but I also wanted to tell about the memory of a love story, what is left of a love story.” In James O'Higgins’ 1982 interview with Michel Foucault for Theory and Society, Foucault describes the role individual memory plays in the formation of a relationship, saying “For a homosexual, the best moment of love is likely to be when the lover leaves in the taxi. It is when the act is over and the boy is gone that one begins to dream about the warmth of his body, the quality of his smile, the tone of his voice. It is the recollection rather than the anticipation of the act that assumes a primary importance in homosexual relations,” (Foucault 19). Foucault speaks to the unique importance of recollection and imagination in queer relationships as a function of the impossibility of demonstrating attraction in public. In the same interview with Stefan Pape, Haenel calls out this distinction, arguing that the film is “very much a queer story... the biggest change in this movie is that we have based, as Noémie says, erotism on collaboration, on imagination, and not on domination that would be most of the time the strongest lift for erotism.” Portrait recognizes that Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship could not exist outside their isolation in this house, but Sciamma develops creative devices to indicate how both characters preserve the memory of their time together as a means of honoring the relationship. Héloïse asks Marianne to draw a self-portrait on page 28 of their copy of Metamorphoses, and years later, in Héloïse’s portrait at the Louvre salon, she is balancing a book on her leg with her finger holding the book open to reveal page number 28. This dialogue between the two of them across location, time, and medium affirms their lasting connection and Sciamma’s choice to feature this covert intimate reference speaks both to the integral role their relationship has played in Héloïse’s character’s conception of herself, as well as the creative ownership she continues to possess as the subject of this new painting by another portraitist.

The final scene in the film tracking Héloïse’s reaction to Vivaldi’s “Summer” presents the audience with an opportunity to consider their own relationship to “the gaze.” The length of this shot invites the audience to observe Héloïse processing the sorrow of their relationship ending, then celebrating the joy of its memory, then the audience is asked to step further back and watch the actress Adèle Haenel performing this expression of grief and joy, then step even further back and consider our own relationships and experiences with love that allow us to empathize with this situation. This scene forces us to recognize how we as spectators participate in the gaze—what are the implications when we watch a film? How do we objectify its content, typify it, diminish it, or celebrate it, internalize it, and use it to engage empathetically with ourselves and our surroundings? How do we engage in this behavior with other works we encounter? How can we use meaningful experiences watching films to liberate ourselves and filmmakers from transactional artist-consumer relationships? In A Lovers’ Discourse, Barthes writes “Hence, discourse on love though I may for years at a time, I cannot hope to seize the concept of it except ‘by the tail’: by flashes, formulas, surprises of expression, scattered through the great stream of the Image-repertoire,” (Barthes 59). He speaks to the way works of art teach us as viewers to see ourselves and see others. Portrait crafts an environment for the viewer to not only understand what it means to be seen—as an artist, a model, an individual, a lover, a friend, a woman—but how to see. This moment of catharsis is reminiscent of another Sciamma project, a short film called Pauline (2010), written by Daphné Charbonneau and directed by Sciamma, commissioned by the French government’s Ministry of Health and Sport for a campaign called “Five Films Against Homophobia.” In the short film, a young woman named Pauline, played by Anaïs Demoustier, lies on a bed and describes how it feels to grow up gay in a small French town. She started to feel attracted to women at age fifteen, and began dating a boy to suppress those feelings. When she came out to him, he was initially supportive but revealed his ultimate desire to have a threesome with Pauline and the girl she expressed feelings for, and that he finds the idea of the two women dating to be disgusting. When she broke up with him, he outed her to all of their classmates. She describes playing a male role in a school play and a friend of her father’s grabbing his crotch and yelling at her from the audience that once she finds the right guy she will forget her attraction to women. Her parents did nothing to intervene. Pauline met another girl who was kind to her despite her social ostracism, and she developed feelings for her. After spending several weeks together—holding hands, drinking, talking in her bedroom late into the night—Pauline tried to kiss her, but she was horrified and told everyone at their school what happened. In retrospect, Pauline understands that this girl was afraid and retaliated to avoid having to bear the same scrutiny. Pauline’s parents were ashamed of their daughter’s reputation, so she decided to leave home. She still feels an attachment to her home but hopes that she can establish a new life for herself. Pauline ends her monologue saying “Maybe it’s going to change now. Now that you’re here,” and it’s revealed that she has been reciting this story to her girlfriend (played by Adèle Haenel) who joins her on camera and lies down next to her on the bed. Pauline addresses the harmful mythologies formulated against queerness—that gay people are predatory and take advantage of their intimate friendships, that queerness is something that can be alleviated by meeting the “right” member of the opposite sex, that queer people insist on dressing and behaving in a provocative way as a means to garner attention, etc. In the existing oeuvre of lesbian cinema, there are many films that play into these fallacies; movies like Lost and Delirious (2001) and The Children’s Hour (1961) where gay characters kill themselves to escape social ostracism, or Kissing Jessica Stein (2001) and Below Her Mouth (2016) where the gay characters end up with male romantic partners. I offer this commentary not to criticize these movies for failures in representation. These filmmakers attempted to craft nuanced films about queer experiences despite the logistical obstacles of their time, and from a narrative perspective, it would be inaccurate to believe many of these relationships between women would flourish openly in the world. But Pauline speaks to the necessity of queer people openly existing and finding communities who share their experiences. This film presents the argument that the alternative to living as a gay person is not living as a straight person, it’s suffering under the mantle of performing straightness. Marian Wright Edelman, an advocate for civil rights, specifically children’s rights, says of representation “Children cannot be what they cannot see.” The revelation at the end of the film that Pauline has been telling her story to her girlfriend demonstrates the necessity of being seen and understood by people with your same identity and experience— “how it feels to stand here in this world having been seen our entire lives.”

Once we have made sense of how the female gaze functions, we understand what becomes possible with cinematic visualizations using the female gaze. The female gaze renders a new world of queer possibility—one not dependent on confrontation or power structures. There are four elements I will use to define the female gaze’s effect: self-actualization, art, love, and liberation. In Céline Sciamma’s 2011 film Tomboy, a ten-year-old gender-non-conforming child moves to a new neighborhood in the suburbs of Paris with their parents and six-year-old sister Jeanne. At home, the child uses she/her pronouns and is referred to by their parents as “Laure.” Laure meets some of the neighborhood kids and introduces themself as “Mickaël,” using he/him pronouns. Mickaël is inducted into the group of boys, playing soccer with them and swimming with them wearing a boy’s Speedo which they fashion out of a women’s bathing suit. They develop a relationship with a neighborhood girl named Lisa, who kisses them during their swimming trip. One day, Lisa goes to Mickaël’s apartment to ask them to play and instead meets their sister Jeanne. When Lisa asks to see “Mickaël,” Jeanne doesn’t reveal Mickaël’s identity as Laure, understanding that Laure has been presenting as masculine with the neighborhood kids. Jeanne confronts Laure, but promises not to tell their parents on the condition that she also be allowed to play with the neighborhood kids. One of Mickaël’s friends pushes Jeanne and he and Mickaël get into a fight. The boy and his mother come back to their apartment where they tell Laure’s mother that her son participated in this fight. Laure’s mother also understands that they have been presenting as a boy and going by the name Mickaël, and she scolds Laure for lying. She forces Laure to wear a dress and go to the boy’s apartment so she can explain to his mother that her child was lying about being male—she also makes Laure confess to Lisa who storms away in contempt when she sees Mickaël arrive in the dress. Laure is mortified and does not want to leave the family’s apartment to go play with the other children. Eventually, Laure sees Lisa standing outside the building and goes downstairs to talk to her. They reconcile, and Lisa looks kindly at Laure who finally tells her “My name is Laure.” While Tomboy showcases violent and emotional clashes between Laure and their parents, and Laure and the neighborhood children, it also presents many instances of affirmation which come about when characters look past the restrictive limitations of assigned gender identity. In one scene, Laure and Jeanne are having dinner with their parents after Jeanne has learned that Laure has been presenting as Mickaël outside the home. Jeanne describes playing with Laure’s friends that day, saying “My favorite one is Mickaël. One of Laure's friends. He played with me, carried me on his back, and now he is my friend too.” Laure smiles at Jeanne from across the table and they both laugh. Since Jeanne is younger and less aware of the social expectations that govern gender presentation, she can reimagine her sibling using their preferred name and pronouns. Sciamma’s choice to make Laure’s relationship with Jeanne not one of hostility, but one of imaginative possibility is an example of “the feeling camera” prioritizing their emotions rather than confrontation. Their imaginative harmony allows Laure’s masculine identity to exist in their home in a positive way, even if through this externalized description of Mickaël. While they are out with the neighborhood kids, Jeanne describes to another neighborhood girl how amazing it is to have an older brother, saying “A big brother can protect you. You know, once, my brother fought some boys that were bullying me. He punched them really hard because they were rude to me. That was in our old home. He was the strongest boy in the neighborhood. Everyone was scared of him and all the girls loved him. But he didn't care about anyone else but me.” Laure and Jeanne collaborate on the formation of Mickaël’s identity, inventing a masculine history for him which serves to benefit both of them—an example of both characters mutually acknowledging each other’s needs. When Mickaël fights the boy who shoves Jeanne later in the film, it is a culmination of their establishment as a boy equal in standing to the rest of the neighborhood boys, an affirmation of their protective attitude towards their sister, and a manifestation of the identity they have established together with Jeanne. This symbiotic relationship helps Laure realize this masculine identity and reach affirming self-actualization.

Marianne and Héloïse’s collaboration on the betrothal portrait also culminates in affirming self-actualization. The initial portrait Marianne paints of Héloïse prior to their collaboration fails to accurately portray her essence. The painting is rife with technical and aesthetic shortcomings. Technically, the subject’s face shape, complexion, and posture are far removed from Héloïse’s. Aesthetically, the subject faces forward, slightly smiling, open to the viewer in an act of compliance; her expression is devoid of the curiosity, scrutiny, circumspection, or liveliness Marianne comes to recognize in her personality. When Marianne shows Héloïse this version, she emphasizes the “rules, conventions, ideas” that went into the portrait. Héloïse responds saying “The fact it isn't close to me, that I can understand. But I find it sad it isn't close to you.” The rigid conformity to established artistic practices Marianne utilizes to construct this portrait fail to accurately represent both Héloïse’s personhood and Marianne’s artistic identity. The second portrait differs greatly from the first. The interplay between light and shadow in the construction of the face is more specific, the texture of the hair and variations in color more pronounced, the shades of green in the dress are less garish. The subject is now turned to the side, scrutinous, in keeping with Héloïse’s discerning personality, demonstrating an evolution in Héloïse’s self-conception and Marianne’s skills as a portraitist. The two women aid each other in the project of self-actualization and self-conception by recognizing traits in the other that may not have been immediately visible to themselves before, and the manifestation of that exchange resides in their work on this painting. The first time they sleep together, Héloïse asks Marianne “Do all lovers feel they're inventing something?” When these two women see each other creatively, intellectually, and intimately, and articulate that vision together, they invent a new lexicon of collaborative practice.

The relationship between Héloïse and Marianne also redefines eroticism with mutual attraction as its key element. Men’s “freedom to annoy” referenced in 2018’s open letter against #MeToo in Le Monde exists within Sciamma’s canon. François’s relationship to Floriane and Anne in Sciamma’s first film, Water Lilies (2007) speaks to the danger of unspoken sexual agreements, specifically between men and women. Floriane describes her frustrations with François to Marie in one scene, saying “I was with François. It’s always the same. Things get hot, I run away. The poor guy’s lost.” François’ inability or refusal to recognize discomfort in the way he and Floriane interact creates a dangerous tension. Externally, Floriane embodies promiscuity, but internally her character is hesitant about sex. Marie’s friend Anne is also interested in experimenting sexually with François. At the beginning of the film, he walks in on her naked in the women’s locker room and the two of them share a prolonged gaze, leaving Anne to wonder if he is interested in her. Compared to Floriane, Anne is immature, awkward, and uncomfortable in her body. She tries throughout the movie in embarrassing succession to capture François’ attention: waiting naked for him in the women’s locker room (arms outstretched as if she’s been crucified), stealing a necklace from the mall and bringing it to him in the men’s locker room while the rest of the male swimmers gawk, digging a hole in his backyard and burying her bra in it. François does eventually visit Anne one night after being rejected by Floriane. After she invites him in, he immediately starts having rough, wordless sex with her. He rejects any attempt she makes to push him away or reposition herself, carrying through his own conceptualization of this scenario. We see Anne experience a combination of initial gratitude for his attention, and shock at the violent transactionality of the sex. In her profile by Elif Batuman for The New Yorker, Sciamma says she had been thinking recently about filming sexual violence: “How would I shoot a rape scene, if I had to?” Batuman writes “[she] realized that she’d done it already” referencing this moment in Water Lilies. Sciamma dismisses the argument made that non-consensual sex is inherently more thrilling, romantic, or erotic. In Portrait, she establishes a new physical vocabulary of consent-based eroticism. After the bonfire scene, Héloïse and Marianne walk together to a beach cove wearing scarves over their mouths as a defense against the wind. Marianne approaches Héloïse. Both of them pull the scarves down from over their mouths, then they kiss. The physical act of saying “yes” through removing the scarves takes the force out of the interaction. Later, before they have sex for the first time, Héloïse describes to Marianne how she has anticipated this moment, saying “I know all the gestures. I imagined it all, waiting for you.” Marianne asks “You dreamt of me?” “No,” Héloïse responds, “I thought of you.” This moment speaks to Haenel’s goal articulated during the press tour for Portrait about disrupting the narrative of “falling in love without understanding why.” Attraction for both women does not linger in the subconscious; it is an active desire that both parties choose to pursue, free from the importunity that surrounds the sex in Water Lilies.

Another essential throughline in all of Sciamma’s projects is a sense of liberation elicited by “mutual gazes” between characters. In Water Lilies, Marie and Floriane encounter sexuality outside the prescribed realm of heterosexuality to establish their own queer eroticism. Laure/Mickaël and Jeanne in Tomboy create a supportive mutual relationship based on imaginative new definitions of gender. In Pauline, the protagonist reframes the hostility around her sexual identity by sharing her experiences with her girlfriend. Barthes speaks to the generative power of romance in A Lovers’ Discourse saying “I want to change systems: no longer unmask, no longer to interpret, but to make consciousness itself a drug, and thereby to accede to the perfect vision of reality, to the great bright dream, to prophetic love,” (Barthes 60). Through the ir relationship, the object of the portrait (Héloïse) becomes a subject in her own presentation, the artist (Marianne) reconsiders her perception as an object in her model’s gaze, and through these reimaginings of perception and attraction, Portrait of a Lady on Fire establishes an of artistic, emotional, and physical vocabulary formed around the idea of a shared, mutual gaze.

The reverberations of this “new, feminist grammar of cinema” established by Sciamma in Portrait have been noted by critics in the years following the film’s release. In her essay “‘Don’t Regret. Remember’: Frictions of History and Gender in Céline Sciamma’s ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’” for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Paris A. Spies-Gans addresses the historical and literary references that fill the script: “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... Sophie... is a Rousseauian character — the ideal woman, subject of Book V in his influential educational treatise, Émile, or On Education (1762).” The character Héloïse’s name references the famous medieval story of Héloïse d'Argenteuil (also one of forbidden romance). She was secretly married to her teacher Peter Abelard, a famous Parisian philosopher. After discovering their marriage, her family castrated Abelard and compelled him to enter a monastery. D'Argenteuil joins a convent, like her namesake in Portrait. Influenced by this story, Alexander Pope wrote a verse epistle poem in 1717 following Ovid’s poetic format (the author of Metamorphoses which resurfaces throughout Portrait). The poem, whose Anglophone title is “Eloisa to Abelard,” follows d'Argenteuil’s perspective after receiving a letter from Abelard years after their separation. A stanza from the first section of the poem describing their fatalistic meeting reads: “Thou know'st how guiltless first I met thy flame, / When Love approach'd me under Friendship's name; / My fancy form'd thee of angelic kind, / Some emanation of th' all-beauteous Mind,” (Pope 59-62). The poem likens romantic love to a divine experience, comparing the fatalistic joining of two souls to an edict by God. The poem evolves from describing the divinity of their initial meeting to addressing the complications of romantic love forsaken by circumstance. This aspect of the poem is fundamentally queer; Pope makes the argument that despite the laws that govern their connection, “Too soon they taught me 'twas no sin to love.” This story plays a paratextual role in Portrait; the presence of divinity is explicit from the beginning of the film when Héloïse describes the liberation she feels at the Benedictine convent. The fatalist element is also present throughout the film in the characters’ close reading of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Portrait makes a similar argument to “Eloisa to Abelard” about romantic love doomed by external circumstances: the characters’ love’s existence in the first place is an aspect of that fate, and it is how the lovers choose to remember their connection that determines its outcome. Héloïse argues that Eurydice directed Orpheus to turn around at the gates of Hades, compelling him to retain the memory of her over their future together. Pope’s poem ends with a sentiment shared by Portrait about the power of the painter to memorialize tragic love, and the role the viewer plays in justifying its beauty: “Such if there be, who loves so long, so well; / Let him our sad, our tender story tell; / The well-sung woes will soothe my pensive ghost; / He best can paint 'em, who shall feel 'em most,” (Pope 361-364).

Sciamma’s reimagination of how time and memory function in relationships has evolved after her work on Portrait. Her most recent film Petite Maman (2021) explores the relationship between mothers and daughters through the characters of Marion and her 8-year-old daughter Nelly. Marion’s mother has recently passed away. She brings her daughter to her childhood home to help clean out her mother’s belongings. While walking through the woods outside the house, Nelly meets another 8-year-old girl, also named Marion, who asks her to play and eventually invites her back to her house. The layout of the house is identical to Nelly’s grandmother’s house, and Marion is also suspiciously identical to Nelly herself (the two characters are played by twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz). Nelly realizes after meeting Marion’s mother that this little girl is her mother at age 8. She explains their connection to 8-year-old Marion who, rather than being upset by the revelation, accepts the reality of their situation and uses it as an opportunity to understand how her dreams as a child were realized as an adult. Nelly reveals that Marion had her when she was young (23), and there is a moment of tension between them at this revelation. Marion asks “Did I want you?” Nelly says yes, and Marion responds “I'm not surprised. I'm already thinking about you.” Petite Maman engages with the questions we all share about what our parents were like before they had children. The relationship between Nelly and Marion as children affirms that not only did Marion want her daughter from an early age, but across space and time they can revel in the joys of girlhood together and endow each other with a reciprocal view of who they are and will become. At the end of the film, after Nelly says goodbye to 8-year-old Marion for the last time, she returns to her present and re-encounters her 31-year-old mother about to say goodbye to her childhood home. Nelly and adult Marion sit in the empty house together, and Nelly turns to her mother and calls her “Marion.” There’s a moment of recollection from adult Marion—she sees Nelly not just as her daughter but her childhood friend, and ultimately a reflection of her childhood self. She smiles effervescently and returns her daughter’s recognition, saying back to her “Nelly.” In their essay on Petite Maman for the Criterion Collection, film journalist So Mayer writes that “these possibilities are connected as liberation, a way of disobeying the conventions with shared laughter... an ancestral reminder to do, together, what makes us feel happy; to say goodbye to the straight time that commands us to abandon childhood. To see it again.”

Joey Soloway ends their TIFF lecture with a prose poem full of suggestions of what the female gaze is, does, and could do. In one line they say “The female gaze seeks out and gathers evidence, buried gems. We find a movie, one movie, one person, one poem and we say ‘Oh yeah! That’s it.’” Films centering the female gaze are a relatively new category with a small number of projects overtly attributing its influence, but we know it when we see it. Projects formed around the female gaze have existed throughout film history and the more oceanic history of art. As film criticism evolves its understanding of the female gaze, there comes in tandem a mourning on behalf of the women-led films that were never made, and frustration for the women-led films that were made but did not achieve prominent success. And the hurt only cascades from there. The medium of film has only existed for a little over a century. What female artists existed over the course of human history whose stories we do not have access to? Sciamma talks about the forgotten female painters from the 18th century as the impetus behind Portrait. She decided, rather than producing a biopic of an existing artist, to invent a new story to stand in for the experience of all of these female portraitists, re-membering them to the history of fine art. This idea is the crux of Cheryl Dunye's seminal 1996 film The Watermelon Woman. In the film, Dunye plays a documentarian researching a Black actress from the 1930’s who is credited in the film Plantation Memories as just “The Watermelon Woman.” The film discusses the lack of documentation that exists around Black actors from this period, and the broader erasure of Black, queer, and female narratives from the global history of art. The film ends with a title card that reads “Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction.” Sciamma, like Dunye, is engaged in a project of mythmaking to fill historic gaps. Soloway says in their TIFF lecture that “Art is propaganda for the self.” Portrait of a Lady on Fire asserts one version of the self, reinterpreting traditional filmmaking techniques to recontextualize women’s experiences as artists and subjects. While the specter of female artists whose work remains excluded from the canon haunts this film, Sciamma encourages viewers not to regret, but to re-member.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1998.

Barthes, Roland. A Lover's Discourse: Fragments. Hill and Wang, 2010.

Batuman, Elif. “Céline Sciamma’s Quest for a New, Feminist Grammar of Cinema.” The New Yorker, 31 January 2022.

Carol. Directed by Todd Haynes, performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, the Weinstein Company, 2015.

Delmaire, Hélène. First Portrait from Portrait of a Lady on Fire directed by Céline Sciamma. 2019.

Delmaire, Hélène. Second Portrait from Portrait of a Lady on Fire directed by Céline Sciamma. 2019.

Despentes, Virginie. “Césars : «Désormais on se lève et on se barre».” Libération, 1 March 2020. Accessed 27 January 2024.

Highsmith, Patricia. The Price of Salt. Dover Publications, 2015.

Hopper, Edward. New York Movie. 1939, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

“How Good Filmmaking Brings a Script to Life.” YouTube, uploaded by Lessons from the Screenplay, 27 May 2021.

Hurier, Valérie. “‘J’ai décidé de politiser mon arrêt du cinéma’ : la lettre d’Adèle Haenel à ‘Télérama.’” Télérama, 9 May 2023.

“In conversation with Noémie Merlant & Adèle Haenel | Porträt einer jungen Frau in Flammen.” YouTube, uploaded by nochnfilm, 3 November 2019.

Johnson, Claudia L. Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel. The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Keslassy, Elsa. “Adèle Haenel Calls Out French Film Industry for Protecting ‘Sexual Aggressors’: They’ll ‘Do Anything to Defend Their Rapist Chiefs.’” Vanity Fair, 9 May 2023. Accessed 27 January 2024.

 La vie d'Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Color). Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, performances by Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, Wild Bunch, 2013.

Mayer, So. “‘Petite maman:’ Au revoir l’enfance.” The Criterion Collection, 3 May 2023. Accessed 27 January 2024.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, 1975, pp. 6–18, Oxford Academic.

Naissance des pieuvres (Water Lilies). Directed by Céline Sciamma, performances by Pauline Acquart, Adèle Haenel, and Louise Blachère, Haut et Court, 2007.

“Noémie Merlant & Adèle Haenel on their scintillating relationship in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” YouTube, uploaded by HeyUGuys, 24 February 2020.

O’Higgins, James, and Michel Foucault. “II. Sexual Choice, Sexual Act: An Interview with Michel Foucault.” Salmagundi, no. 58/59, 1982, pp. 10–24. JSTOR. Accessed 6 Feb. 2024.

Palmer, Tim. Brutal Intimacy: Analyzing Contemporary French Cinema. Wesleyan University Press, 2011.

Pauline. Directed by Céline Sciamma, performances by Anaïs Demoustier and Adèle Haenel,  Canal+, 2010.

Petite Maman. Directed by Céline Sciamma, performances by Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse, and Margot Abascal, Pyramide Films, 2021.

Pope, Alexander. “Eloisa to Abelard.” Poetry Foundation.

Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire). Directed by Céline Sciamma, performances by Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Valeria Golino, and Luàna Bajrami, Pyramide Films, 2019.

Tomboy. Directed by Céline Sciamma, performances by Zoé Héran, Malonn Lévana, and Jeanne Disson, Pyramide Films, 2011.

“100 French women denounce wave of #MeToo ‘puritanism.’” Deutsche Welle, 9 January 2018. Accessed 27 January 2024.

Sciamma, Céline. “Ready for the Rising Tide.” BAFTA Screenwriters' Lecture Series 2019, 3 December 2019, Curzon Mayfair, London.

Sciamma, Céline. Transcript of Tomboy English Subtitles. Scripts.com.

Sciamma, Céline. Transcript of Water Lilies English Subtitles. Scripts.com.

Sciamma, Céline and bunniefuu. Transcript of Portrait of a Lady on Fire English Subtitles. Forever Dreaming.

Sciamma, Céline, Mlleclaudine and Vittoria. Shooting Script of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Unofficial English Translation. Tumblr.

Sedgwick, Eve. “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 17, no. 4, 1991, pp. 818-837, JSTOR.

Soloway, Joey. “The Female Gaze.” TIFF Master Class Screenwriters' Lecture Series 2016,  Toronto. Keynote Address.

Spies-Gans, Paris A. “‘Don’t Regret. Remember’: Frictions of History and Gender in Céline Sciamma’s ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire.’” Los Angeles Review of Books, 11 May 2020. Accessed 27 January 2024.

Syme, Rachel. “‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ Is More Than a ‘Manifesto on the Female Gaze.’” The New Yorker, 4 March 2020.

“The Greatest Films of All Time.” British Film Institute.

The Watermelon Woman. Directed by Cheryl Dunye, performances by Cheryl Dunye, Lisa Marie Bronson, Valarie Walker, and Guinevere Turner, First Run Features, 1997.

Woodman, Francesca. Untitled, Rome, Italy, 1977-1978. 1977-1978, Foam Fotografiemuseum, Amsterdam.

About the Author

Delaney Teehan

Delaney Teehan is a New York-based writer and artist. She moved to New York in 2018 to study at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduating in 2022 with a degree in production and design for theatre and double major in English literature. She has collaborated with a myriad of arts organizations, such as New York Theatre Workshop, Ars Nova, and The Tank. Since graduating, Delaney has held a full-time position as an Associate Production Manager for the production management firm Aurora, working on many Broadway shows including “Appropriate,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Prime Facie,” “Death of a Salesman,” and “The Kite Runner.” She recently served as the research assistant for Brídín Cotton and Natalie Robin’s book “Theatre Work: Reimagining the Labor of Theatrical Production,” published in 2024 with Routledge. Delaney centers intersectionality, anti-racism, and restorative justice as guiding ethical principles, and she seeks to merge her artmaking practices with expository writing to better understand the arts world as it currently stands.

Read more work by Delaney Teehan.