Mon. Dec 16th, 2019

Review: Céline Sciamma challenges the male gaze with the meticulous and gorgeous ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in Céline Sciamma’s PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

The concept of the male gaze is almost literally what defines Hollywood.  Movies made in Hollywood are still largely made by men for men, and when it comes to a woman’s place in Hollywood, it mostly is still to serve that male perspective and point-of-view.  The term “male gaze” generally references the way Hollywood movies portray female characters, i.e. the movie sees the women the way men see women, usually in an idealized or hypersexualized way.  And because most writers and directors—the ones who are responsible for the POV of a movie— are still men, it continues to be the unwritten motif of the industry. 

While there is some progress being made within Hollywood to change this imbalance, we still have to look beyond Hollywood to the independent film scene and to foreign markets to find films that offer more diverse perspectives.  A perfect example of a film that is made wholly contrary to the male gaze-driven Hollywood studio complex is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a new French film from writer/director Céline Sciamma and starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel.  Not only is it as far from the male perspective as you could hope to be, it quite possibly might have invented—or at least perfected— the female gaze.  

What is perhaps the most ironic thing about Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the fact that even though the film is directed by, written by and starring women and there are hardly even men in the film, the plot of the movie is still driven by men.  Merlant plays Marianne, a painter who has been hired by a Contessa (Valeria Golino) on an isolated island off the coast of France in the late 18th century, to paint the wedding portrait of her daughter, Heloise, played by Haenel.  The Contessa needs the portrait in order to entice an Italian suitor for her daughter.  If the suitor likes the portrait, he will agree to marriage and mother and daughter will be able to move to Milan and a more comfortable life.  Even in absentia, men’s preferences and desires are controlling these women’s lives. 

What throws everything off, though, is the fact that Heloise dares to have an independent spirit.  She does everything she can to resist her likely fate by refusing to sit for a portrait, thereby putting off the inevitable marriage.  Her stubbornness has caused several male painters to quit, so the Contessa decides to try a different tack by hiring a female artist, who she hopes will be able to soften Heloise’s demeanor.  Still, the Contessa warns Marianne that she must never reveal who she is or why she’s there and she must figure out how to paint the portrait in secret.  This will require spending time with Heloise, enough time to memorize her face in order to be able to paint a reasonable likeness. 

While I was watching the movie, I found myself quite absorbed by the fact that the plot is so simple.  The whole movie hinges on the deception about who she is and how she’s going to get this painting done.   How can such simplicity sustain a full-length and full-bodied film?  Because Sciamma creates a simple setup and then lets the characters flesh out a full-bodied and engaging story that rises above plot.  It is a moody, dramatic and perfectly tensioned exploration of how human beings find ways to reveal themselves through the depth of human connection.

The movie unspools itself slowly and meticulously.  We first follow Marianne as she arrives at this dark and cold place against a rocky shore, and we discover the house and the people as she does.  Just three people live in this estate house, Heloise, the Contessa and Sophie, the servant girl (played by Luàna Bajrami).  The location and the size of the house all add to the sense of mystery and isolation that is quickly induced in the opening scenes of the film.  But we are as intrigued as Marianne is to meet this reclusive and headstrong woman and equally curious to see how Marianne pulls off her assignment.

But it quickly becomes less about the painting and more about the passion that slowly develops between Heloise and Marianne.  They are each somewhat leery of the other at the beginning, one not trusting and the other deceiving.  But as they start to bond during walks along the rocky coastline, they both realize they are drawn to each other, emotionally, spiritually and physically.  They share a common affection for young Sophie, and when the Contessa leaves for a few days, the three of them live like a family, taking care of one another and living a blissfully happy existence. 

Nothing ever stays happy for long, at least not usually for young women in the 1700s, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire finds so many ways to show us these women as people and not stock figures of their time.  Haenel and Merlant are exquisite as their characters build this slow burn of intimacy and revelation.  These women are full-bodied characters, not clichéd stereotypes or predictable panderers.  They are interesting and flawed, emotional and smart and their chemistry together is magnetic. 

The film itself is gorgeous to look at and the lack of any score makes this quiet, serene film all the more potent.  This is not a movie for a casual movie lover.  It is a slow and quiet period piece about women learning about and taking care of each other, so it’s probably not the best choice for date night.  But if you love to chew on character work, appreciate a wholly woman-centered world, and dynamic acting performances and gorgeous vistas shot in natural light thrill you, I can’t recommend any movie more than this one.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire won the Screenplay prize at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and will be released in the US by Neon on December 6.

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