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How Céline Sciamma Subverts The Male Gaze in 'Portrait Of A Lady On Fire'

The film has received several accolades, including Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Screenplay (2019).

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Cinema
3 min read
How Céline Sciamma Subverts The Male Gaze in 'Portrait Of A Lady On Fire'
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The very ontology of anyone who is not a cisgender heterosexual (cis-het) man is marked by the gaze, influence and authority of a cis-het man. The heteropatriarchy has been so meticulously imbibed into the workings of society that the physical absence of a man does little to prevent the imposition of his will. We see this variously manifesting in the 21st century as much as we do in Céline Sciamma’s 18th century France.

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In her fifth film titled Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), we hardly ever see a man on screen. However, every key character– irrespective of class and occupation– has their choices, desires and autonomy being dictated by absent men.

Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) is a stubborn heiress set to marry an Italian man (who was supposed to be married to her sister, had she not 'escaped' by leaping off a cliff) against her will, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a young painter struggling to make a name for herself in a male-dominated occupation and their housemaid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) who finds out she is pregnant and has no choice but to illegally abort the child.

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The film is set against the idyllic backdrop of an isolated island in France.

This is noteworthy because Sciamma doesn’t just hold up a reflection of the shackles women face but she also depicts how they resist them. In this film, freedom comes with isolation.

A moving scene portrays Marriane, Héloïse and Sophie drinking wine at the dining table, almost glowing from the golden hues of the crackling fire. The film is a tasteful masterclass on restraint but it paints a Utopian routine that the three women settle into, once they are finally left alone.

A still from Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

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With isolation, comes the privilege of evading the male gaze.

Laura Mulvey introduced the idea of the male gaze as a power structure. The one who gazes is the one with the power. And women have a history of being the ones 'gazed at' without consent. Sciamma herself calls Portrait of a Lady on Fire “a manifesto on the female gaze” and no one could’ve said it better.

For the film lets us into a landscape where the gaze is a two-way street. After Marriane, tasked with painting Héloïse’s portrait secretly, fails, the latter agrees to sit for a second portrait. She not only asserts her agency but also reminds her that despite being the muse, she is still capable of observing Marriane. This not only equalizes the gaze but also points to a balance of the power dynamics.

A still from Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

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With the ability to evade the male gaze, comes unadulterated queer desire. Sciamma paints a soulful portrait of love, desire and heartbreak. Since we look through a feminine lens, the women display their real bodies– with cellulite and body hair.

The scenes where Marianne and Héloïse share an eclectic intimacy are as poetic as they are essential. In a socio-political landscape where pop culture only contributes to the fetishisation of lesbian sex, the sex scenes in the film show restraint.

Rather than sexual gratuity, they depict furtive glances, deep metaphors and soft imagery. The scene with the most amount of nudity almost looks like a painting: a naked Héloïse sprawled on the bed with a small mirror leaning against her inner thighs. It's reflection shows Marriane gazing at her, as she sketches her paramour’s body.

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in a still from the film.

(Picture Courtesy: YouTube)

Sciamma’s filmography can be entirely considered a manifesto on the female gaze but the fact that Portrait of a Lady on Fire received the maximum global recognition is a win for many.

Claire Mathon’s cinematography ensures that the visual treatment is unmatched and stellar performances by the cast make it an unforgettable watch. However, the filmmaker shines through with her powerful subversion of the omnipresent male gaze.

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Topics:  Film   Review   Gender 

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