Film Review: Portrait Of A Lady On Fire Is About Female Gaze And Female Body

Portrait Lady Fire

What is the female gaze? As a woman, I have definitely been aware of the lingering male gaze throughout my life, whether consciously or not. As a feminist, I have even come to understand it ontologically since a few years. But the obsession with critically analysing the male gaze left me with a rather superficial knowledge and idea of alternatives to it. In this way, the female gaze did not occur to me in a profound manner.

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I ask again, what is the female gaze then? Is it the mere absence of the male gaze? Or does the female gaze go beyond absences? What I am talking about here is a conscious choice to reject objectification to pave way for subjectivities and autonomy. The female gaze then becomes a conglomeration of the ideas of equality and collaboration, which can be achieved only with denying any space to all forms of objectification of the human body, specifically bodies of women and those that do not fall into heteronormative identities.

French director, Celine Sciamma’s 2019 release ​Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) can be seen as an epitome of the female gaze. Set in 18th century France, the movie explores a romantic relationship that buds between ​Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) who is an aristocratic woman, and ​Marriane (​Noémie Merlant), a painter. Looking at the story with a feminist lens, the movie is as contemporary as it gets. It brings into light the multifarious identities of womanhood and also successfully portrays possible solidarities that can exist between women. It does so by moving away from dominant discourses about women in cinema. An important role in distancing itself from the male gaze has been the depiction of the female body.

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This idea is established at the very beginning of the movie itself. As Marriane sits naked by the fire after reaching the house where she is commissioned to paint a portrait of ​Héloïse, the frame beautifully reproduces that image to the viewer. A conscious choice in the frame has been the depiction of the female body that does not meet conventional standards of female beauty. Marriane, quite evidently, has a protruded belly. While the protrusion is slight, it is enough to make a point, simply because it is unimaginable to see a woman without a flat stomach in a manner that is not shameful for her.

Midway in the movie, it deals with the phenomena of menstruation as well as abortion. This is not done in a subtle manner but as a matter of fact; as part of daily lives of women. In a particular scene, the housemaid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) informs Marriane about her missed menstrual cycles since the past three months. As Marriane realises what it means, she asks Sophie if she wants to have a child. To this Sophie firmly replies in the negative. This scene continues to hold importance because it does away with the guilt and shame that is expected out of women in rejecting to bear a child. So Portrait of a Lady on Fire is quite explicit in its representation of the two situations and therefore, a loud promulgation of women owning their bodies. This scene is only complemented by another where, post the abortion, the three women, Sophie, Marriane, and Héloïse, actually paint a picture of the abortion taking place. It allows the viewer to imbibe the idea that despite numerous regulations of the female body, there have been intermittent moments of such self assertion. A portrayal of abortion in 18th century European society impacts us in two contrasting ways. It shows how vast the invisibilisation of women’s bodies as their own is, and at the same time, also mainstreams the possibility of its reclamation.

As we move further with the movie, the desire between Marriane and Héloïse grows and develops into a romantic relationship. It is here again that the movie sways away from dominant discourses put in place to satisfy the male gaze. It is a movie that is highly political for it redefines several ideas entrenched in cinema. It does not shy from showing realities of the human body. Hair on women, in parts other than the head, are not desired. But Sciamma makes sure that this desire of rendering the female body as a commodity for a consumerist gaze does not even brush the movie. It is therefore a pleasant surprise, when body hair remains uncensored throughout the movie, specifically in scenes of intimacy between Marriane and Héloïse.

Another redefining moment is the “sex scene” in the movie. While Sciamma has been criticised for not being bold enough to have an explicit lovemaking scene, she refutes and says that there is in fact one. It is simply not conventional, and hence, does not fit into mainstream ideas of sex, and hence, our own imaginations. She is referring to the scene of penetration of the armpit as a moment that can easily be correlated with sex. As a student of Women’s Studies, I have often found the idea of a peno-vaginal penetration outdated and highly exclusive myself. Sitting in our classrooms, we have engaged with theoretical understandings and manifestations of this heteronormative belief that sex is only a particular way. But Sciamma, not only challenges this notion in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but also brings to life an alternative that has been missing in our own chronicles.

The female gaze, thus, does not reduce the female body to an essentialist object. And by doing so, it opens up several narratives that are given their deserved spaces. Sciamma’s ​Portrait of a Lady on Fire, as a portrait in itself of ideas of consent, collaboration, autonomy, is an ensemble of the female and the queer gaze. Without shying away from the idea of sensuality of the human body, it shows the importance of claiming that sensuality and projecting it as our own. The female body, thus, becomes a subject with the gaze that is feminist.

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The movie is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Mubi in India. The views expressed are the author’s own and not that of SheThePeople.