In an echo of the voyeuristic peep show, one of cinema’s precursors, the male gaze of cinema refers to the idea that the film camera, when shooting women, is guided by male desire. We can see it in most studio film sex scenes, but a shift is underway both in cinema and on television.

Some films have used the male gaze subversively. Under the Skin (2013) and Ex Machina (2014), for examples, feature a female figure who weaponizes her physical attractiveness against dominant men. But more recently, films like Disobedience (2017) and My Days of Mercy (2017) actively channel a female gaze, focusing on shots and angles that evoke intimacy and female desire.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu), written and directed by Céline Sciamma, falls into the latter and also surpasses it.


Photo Credit: Andrews Films Co. Ltd

In pre-revolutionary France, painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives at an estate in Brittany to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), to be sent to her Milanese suitor to appraise for marriage. Problem is, Héloïse rejects the blind marriage and won’t sit for the portrait. Hence, her mother (Valeria Golino) tells Marianne, she must be Héloïse’s walking companion and observe her in secret. She has a week to finish the portrait.

Shot from Marianne’s perspective, the film follows her gaze with insert shots of Héloïse’s body: ear, hands, neck. Every night, Marianne translates these mental images into sketches; her gaze is not lustful but aesthetic, at least initially.

Taken straight from horror filmmaking, Sciamma’s obfuscating camera angles convey the tension of Marianne’s subterfuge, and Héloïse’s anger at her own predicament raises the stakes even higher. Cinematographer Claire Mathon captures the moodiness with chiaroscuro lighting, leaving ample shadow and darkness in the background and around the edges of the frame. The only thing preventing jump scares is the sound of approaching shoes on wooden floors (foley by Vincent Milner).


Photo Credit: Andrews Films Co. Ltd

After a plot twist, Héloïse willingly poses for Marianne during the second week; Héloïse’s mother is away, letting them shed their rigid roles and become true companions. This middle stretch is a flowering of emotion within the limits of a fixed time and place; conversely, the chemistry between the two leads sometimes feels forced, a result of viewer expectation more than of natural character development. Throughout the film, Sciamma has planned every shot, moment, and line of dialogue with fastidious care. The trade-off is a relative lack of spontaneity, but with craftsmanship of this caliber, it’s mostly a moot point. Portrait is a triumph of auteurism.

In one enthralling scene, as Héloïse sits for Marianne, she turns the tables by demonstrating how, as Marianne gazes at her, so does she gaze at Marianne. The male gaze of cinema, the safely hidden voyeur, is revealed to be an illusion: the gaze is reversible as long as the camera is present. The artist, too, must join the fray in order to create, and by doing so, risk something deeply personal.

The specific risk in this film is that of having one’s habitual mode of existence unsettled by the new intensity that comes with love. “Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?” Héloïse asks. But no invention comes from thin air, and here the romantic relationship is built atop of conventions from the history of painting, with one scene resembling Manet’s Olympia. Sex scenes start from deliberately arranged angles and end just as the aesthetic form collapses into lust.


Photo Credit: Andrews Films Co. Ltd

Beyond subjective experience, art also has historical significance. The question of which subjective experiences are worth recording for posterity is suggested when the two women witness the abortion of the housemaid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). When Marianne, who herself has had an abortion, turns away, Héloïse admonishes her, “Watch.” As an artist, she can bear witness not just for herself but for the world. In a rebuttal of the convention (according to Marianne) that women painters are denied nude male models “to prevent us from becoming great artists,” Héloïse later arranges herself and Sophie into a tableau of the abortion for Marianne to paint.

But on a personal level, what remains seared into Marianne’s memory is the indelible image of the bonfire where Sophie seeks the village midwife; of Héloïse on the far side of the fire, hazy in the heat; of her passionate, defiant gaze piercing through the haze; of (when Héloïse steps out from behind the flames) the train of her gown aflame -- the fire that is her anger, her passion, and the creative spark of her self-invention. It’s as if Héloïse beckons Marianne’s, the camera’s, and our gaze to witness her on fire.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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