Lesbian representation in films, in particular mainstream films, is difficult to find. The industry often shies away from a plot that focuses itself around the love between two women, perhaps out of a belief that it will not attract enough viewers, or perhaps because it is often over-sexualised and therefore reduces the scope of such filmmaking. Céline Sciamma’s Portrait de la jeune fille en feu I hope is evidence that this need not be the case.
The film prickles with an unspoken intensity from the very opening, and it lingers long after the credits begin to roll. There is a noticeable absence of musical accompaniment, and as a result, we are drawn into the characters’ every expression, their every breath. The film follows the love between Marianne, a female painter commissioned to create a portrait of a young woman, Hëloise, who is to be married off to a Milanese gentleman. Thus the foundations of the plot rest upon an abundance of intent gazes which are charged with desire but ironically, for all it’s focus on gazing, this is a film that feels more like a genuine experience than something just to watch.
And yet this only lightly touches upon the surface of the film’s brilliance. The two lead actresses, Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant, have undeniable chemistry together. Both exude a raw vulnerability that gently shadows their outward robustness and culminates in the beauty of the film’s final scene (which I will reluctantly prevent myself from spoiling). The sensitive desire that persists between them is almost tangible, and both actresses’ hesitant expressions form the underlying sense of inevitable separation and tragedy.
As if there is not already enough to appreciate in the hugely talented lead actresses, the cinematography is utterly stunning. Although the camera often rests on Haenel and Merlant, it is impossible to not appreciate the coastal scenery; from the cliffs to the waves falling onto the shore, the images of nature are breathtaking. Equally, the technique of mirroring the female gaze in the slow, watchful eye of the camera itself is genius; the very beginning of the film pans across a group of art students who are drawing Marianne, each instructed to carefully study small physical details. In didactically stating ‘prenez le temps de me regarder’ (‘take time to look at me’), it seems Marianne is instructing not just her students but the audience too. Sciamma herself is an activist on the male gaze and its dominance in society, which she believes has allowed men to be at the forefront of art for centuries. By virtue of the theme of painting and portraits, the female gaze is accentuated and subverts what is all too often portrayed through the eyes of men.
Even with the stark absence of male figures, the patriarchal control over Hëloise and Marianne is omnipresent. Marianne is unable to paint men in their naked form, which restricts her from approaching the richest artistic subjects, and Hëloise is given no freedom in the choices of her future, being directed into a marriage that she is unable to refuse despite constant attempts to prevent it. It is this absolute control of female freedom that drives the narrative.
But this revolt on patriarchal cinema – which took on a literal form when both Sciamma and Haenel walked out of the César Awards in response to Roman Polanski, a convicted rapist, receiving an award – does not stop with the two protagonists. The young maid, Sophie, is the only other character to be included in their remote utopia, and even she suffers through a grim depiction of an abortion. None are free, then, from the constraints of the male world, and all of them are ultimately unable to escape from it.
There are so many nuances that it is difficult to truly capture the enthralling power of Portrait d’une jeune fille en feu within the limits of language; the only way I can do Céline Sciamma’s masterpiece justice is to have convinced you to watch it for yourself.