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Portrait of a lady on fire: Looking through the female gaze

Updated: Jul 6, 2022

First, there is being a woman.

The tenderness of your skin, wrapped in flowing fabric, housing a body you can stretch and press, loaded with overlooked aches that are frequently taken without your will. That's capable of so much that so many people will never see.

Or, more accurately, won't be able to see properly.

Then, there is loving a woman.

Her skin's softness, the contour of her ear, the way she touches her brow or nibbles her lip.

The way those lips push against yours forbidden and demanding.

Your comprehension of her, of yourself, of her.

The notion that you'll never know this person since they're someone else and yet they're you.

Portrait of a lady on fire
portrait of a lady on fire

Finally, there is creation.

On canvas, the delicacy and warmth of flesh come to life. The realization that you are not good enough. Changing, deleting, repainting, and recapturing.

Understanding what they want, feeling what you want, feeling her look, and wanting to preserve it forever, if only for a minute.

The trying.

It is almost impossible to write a review, paint a portrait, produce a film, exist in oneself, or love someone apart from the rest of the world by separating yourself from men and patriarchy, marriage and heteronormativity, history, and tragedy.

Céline Sciamma, on the other hand, accomplishes this feat in this film of hers, not by ignoring the impossible, but by embracing it, by making it her topic.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a tribute to the feminine creative process; it is a tale about making love and art, about the intimacy of the gaze and the permanence of memory, about creating a limitless and free place even if only for a minute.

Céline Sciamma's film is a love letter to both one woman and all women.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is more than just a masterpiece of the feminine gaze or a lesbian film.

It is furiously, tenderly, feverishly, erotically clutching, grasping groping for a new language, a new way of seeing, straining against the screen's bounds.

The plot is simple.

Marianne is a painter who is keen to distance herself from her father's profession, resenting the thought that she would be married off elsewhere if it weren't for him.

She is tenacious and dedicated, and she is a great artist.

Her eyes are constantly on fire.

Her need is insatiable.

Marianne is hired to paint Hélose's wedding portrait.

A man has already failed to complete this task, with Hélose refusing to sit and show her face.

She doesn't want to marry, especially a man she's never met in Milan.

Not to a male, for sure.

Hélose's mother informs Marianne that she must act as a walking companion.

During these walks, she may study Hélose, which will help her paint the image.

Marianne studies and paints, falling in love as a creative endeavor.

Every glimpse excites her as an artist, frightens her as a prospective lover, and irritates her as a spy.

Marianne finds it difficult to continue lying to the girl she is fast falling for as the two form a profound relationship.

The film's finale is evident from the start: this is a love story that could only exist in a transient and tender moment, one that was never meant to stay.

Hélose and Marianne do not have a unique fate, nor is their narrative intended to please an audience's contemporaneous prejudices; doing so would be an erasure of historical reality.

Nonetheless, in the little time they have together, the protagonists are able to establish a utopian sanctuary in which males are – at least physically – exiled, and therefore normal power relations become meaningless.

This allows for a creative depiction of love in which overused sources of conflict and negotiation, such as gender dominance, provide room for exploring new discourses.

The most remarkable aspect of the film is its gorgeous cinematography, which vividly evokes the wildness of the North French Coast as the wind-whipped surf crashes upon the craggy shoreline against stunningly blue skies.

The drama of their location, depicted so brilliantly on screen, imbues this connection with an almost sacred sense.

Several of its crucial scenes occur with the thundering sea breaking behind them.

Even inside, the rich colors of their simple but succulent dresses burst from the screen, making the film look more like a perfume advertorial than a film.

The plot of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is finely layered. It's a quietly revolutionary deconstruction of the male gaze, introducing a new perspective to perceive women's agency and historical contributions to art and culture, all wrapped up in a lovely yet sad love story.

It's intellectually demanding without being alienating, breathtakingly beautiful without compromising narrative depth, and contemplative without surrendering its drenching emotional intensity.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an incandescent masterpiece in every way.

Author: Akash R. Ekka

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