Observation and Partnership in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Paper by Kaitlyn Diffenderfer.

Celine Sciamma is a French film director and screenwriter, best known for critically acclaimed work such as Girlhood (2014), Tomboy (2011), and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). Sciamma is no stranger to exploring relevant and complex topics such as gender identity, feminism, and female sexuality, and sexual orientation within her films, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) is no exception. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which Sciamma describes as a “manifesto about the female gaze”, draws inspiration from “L’événement ” written by Annie Ernaux in 1963. This manifesto describes her experience with getting an illegal abortion at the age of 23 and the ways it impacted her life. This portrayal of an abortion can be seen through Sophie’s storyline in the film. In addition, Sciamma claims that she has drawn inspiration from the narrative and form of Titanic (James Cameron, 1997). Portrait of a Lady on Fire falls under the category of a fictional narrative film and the beautiful seaside landscape was filmed on the coast of Quiberon, France. While this film isn’t officially a part of a specific movement, it could definitely be considered a feminist and LGBTQ+ film for it’s acurate portrayl of a lesbian relationship and it’s commentary on a patriarchal society. Set in the 18th century, this historical drama/romance strikes an emotional chord by portraying the ways that women are restricted by the patriarchy and reshapes the relationship between an artist and their art. The scene in Portrait of a Lady on Fire where Heloise poses for Mairanne is a crucial moment in the film as it is essential to developing the themes of partnership and observation. This scene conveys these themes through the evolving mise-en-scene, patterns, dialogue, acting, cinematography, and minimal sound. In addition, the themes are very important to the film’s form as they push development, create deeper meaning, accomplish character goals, as well as contribute to the film’s Non-Classical form. These themes are very relevant, as they reject the conventions of the male gaze and reflect the power imbalance that women were subject to in 18th century France.

Heloise, who had previously rejected the idea of being painted for her arranged marriage, finally decides that she is comfortable with Marianne capturing her portrait. The succession of shots is extremely important to building the pace and intensity of this scene, as well as conveying the themes of observation and partnership. The scene opens with a shot of Marianne’s lifeless and incomplete portrait of Heloise, filled with neutral, cool toned colors. Marianne has completed only the face and shoulders. We are then shown Marianne in a medium close-up shot, who is extremely focused on her artwork. The natural lighting, minimal setting, and the silence in the room work together to create a tone of focus and calm, illuminating the artist’s perspective and headspace while at work. Marianne then looks up from her canvas and focuses her attention across the room. An eyeline cut is then used to transition to Heloise, posed in her green dress for Marianne. The minimal mise-en-scene (natural lighting, minimal makeup, and a plain, blue, blurred background) in these series of shots focuses the audience’s undivided attention to Heloise, who is in full focus, and conveys the way in which Marianne is intensely observing her. This is the first instance where the theme of observation is communicated through the mise-en-scene. Marianne looks puzzled, as she is struggling to capture Heloise’s smile. Heloise tells Marianne that it’s most likely due to her anger being more prominent. This is referencing Heloise’s anger toward her position in society, the death of her sister, and the arranged marriage that she cannot escape. Marianne then apologizes to Heloise for having “hurt her” (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, 1:04:17) in a previous conversation between the two and Heloise denies being hurt by Marianne, as she touches her hand to her mouth. We can tell from Heloise’s facial expressions that she is in denial of her hurt feelings. At this point in the scene, the shots are becoming quicker and the dialogue and acting are becoming more intense. This speeds up the pace of the scene, and it no longer feels calm or focused. Quicker pace when paired with the silence of this scene makes the audience feel somewhat uncomfortable, as if they are witnessing a very intense and private moment. Marianne then tells Heloise that she knows she is in denial, as she always moves her hand in that manner when she is troubled. Marianne then reveals that Heloise always bites her lip when she is embarrassed, and the scene cuts to a shot of Heloise biting her lip. While Marianne’s facial expressions convey that she is quite satisfied being in a position where she can observe Heloise, Heloise becomes fidgety and visibly uncomfortable. At this point in the scene, both women are becoming less focused on completing the portrait and are focusing their attention on their passionate banter. Heloise then narrows her gaze toward Marianne and her stare becomes intense. Marianne identifies that Heloise is annoyed by the way she isn’t blinking and apologizes, as she claims that she would hate to be in Heloise’s position (being the seemingly vulnerable muse). This is significant as Marianne believes that she is at an advantage by being the observer, emphasizing the theme of observation.

The scene then cuts to medium-shot of Heloise, who tells Marianne to come to her. The intense silence in the room is broken by the sound of Marianne’s hesitant footsteps moving toward Heloise and the faint sound of birds chirping in the distance. The frame still remains focused on Heloise, as if still from the perspective of Marianne’s canvas. Marianne then enters the frame from the right, as if she is moving into her own portrait, and the camera pans slightly in order to focus both women in the center of the frame. More specifically, Marainne is moving into the position of being perceived as she moves into her portrait. This transition further emphasizes the theme of observation within this scene. Heloise then claims that they are in “exactly the same place” and asks the question “If you look at me, who do I look at?” (Portrait of a Lady on Fire,1:05:30) By asking this question Heloise is implying that Marianne, as the artist, is not at an advantage at all and that they are equally vulnerable. This dialogue at an eyeline angle and shared focus within the same frame highlight the theme of partnership, as they are now in a position to observe each other as equals. Heloise begins to reveal observations that she has made about Marianne. These observations include that Marianne touches her forehead when at a loss for words, that she raises her eyebrows when she feels out of control, and that Marianne breathes through her mouth when something is troubling her. Marianne then exits the frame the same way that she entered and the focus remains on Heloise, looking both uncomfortable and satisfied. The camera then zooms in on Heloise further (medium close-up shot) as if the scene is now switching to her headspace and perspective, which parallels the emphasis on Marianne’s perspective at the beginning of the scene. Heloise then resumes her pose and focuses her attention back toward Marianne’s canvas. The scene then cuts to a medium long-shot of Marianne and the mise-en-scene is expanded upon. We are now able to see Marianne’s entire canvas and dress, as well as the white rag she is holding in her right hand. We are also able to see the blue wall behind her, surrounded by large windows on either side. Against the back wall is a small mirror and a piece of wood. We are also able to see her painting supplies and brushes set up to her right next to a small staircase. There are also candles and a few unidentified objects behind her and to the left. Considering that this scene has followed a pattern of the mise-en-scene being extremely minimal and the camera being very close, it feels as if Marianne is very vulnerable and exposed in this medium-long shot, illuminating the themes of observation and partnership. The pattern being broken makes the image quite jarring and stand-out to the audience. Separately, the shots convey the dialogue, acting, and aspects of the mise-en-scene. Together, however, these shots create a pattern and expectation of medium close-up and medium-shots, which is eventually broken when the perspective changes. This adds meaning and develops the themes within this scene.

This scene marks an important turning point in the film for a few reasons. First, this is the first time that the audience has seen Marianne in a truly vulnerable position. By switching to Heloise’s perspective toward the end of the scene, the audience is able to perceive the narrator through a more objective lens. This change in perspective creates difference and variation in the film’s form and content. In addition, the themes of observation and perspective contribute to the film’s development. As much of the storyline is based around the growth of Marianne and Heloise’s relationship, the theme of partnership between them contributes to the entire film’s development (from scene to scene, and from beginning to end), as well as the development of their individual characters (round and imperfect). Also, the theme of observation is a repetitive pattern throughout the film. A few other examples where this theme is portrayed are at the bonfire, when Marianne paints Heloise in her sleep, when Marianne watches Heloise at the beach, when Marianne observes the portrait of Heloise and her daughter, and in the scene where Marianne sees Heloise at the orchestra years later.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is presented as a flashback and follows a three-act structure. The first act being Marianne in the present tense being reminded of her relationship with Heloise. We are then taken into a flashback of Heloise arriving at the estate and being introduced to Heloise and Sophie, and learning about what happened to her sister. Then second act of the film
would be Heloise and Marianne developing feelings for eachother and Marianne struggling to paint her portrait. The third act of the film would be the relationship between Heloise and Marianne developing while they are faced with a deadline, Sophies abortion, and the end of their realtionship. The third act also includes Marianne reflecting on the relationship years later. While this film follows a three-act structure, it definitely does not follow a traditional Hollywood narrative. This is due to the private goal of a homosexual relationship and the lack of conflicting motivations between characters (this film is more focused on the characters vs. society). The scene in which Marianne is painting Heloise contributes to this narrative of the film in many ways. First, the themes of observation and partnership place implicit meaning on the film through spectator active participation. The implicit meanings in this film are that women are restricted by the patriarchy and the complex relationship between artist and muse. At the beginning of this scene there is a clear power imbalance between the artist and the muse, as the muse (Heloise) is in a vulnerable position. This is a parallel to the arranged marriage that Heloise is facing, and emphasizes how women were vulnerable to a power imbalance during the 18th century. However, when Heloise reveals to Marianne that they are equally observing each other, it becomes a partnership. This lack of power imbalance is a great example of the female gaze, and helps the audience to become emotionally invested in their relationship. This revelation allows the audience to carry this implicit meaning in other scenes. This scene also directly relates to the character’s goals, specifically Heloise. Throughout the film Heloise is constantly trying to avoid being demeaned to an object. We can see this when she refuses to be painted and when she initially refuses to reveal her face in order to avoid being objectified. This scene is an accomplishment of Heloise’s public goal when she convinces Marianne to see her as an equal. This scene also accomplishes the public goal of Marianne, who finally got Heloise to agree to be painted and observed. This scene is somewhat of an accomplishment of both Marianne and Heloise’s private goals of pursuing a homosexual relationship with each other. The undertones of the dialogue within this scene are quite suggestive of their feelings, and the acting creates an undeniable sexual tension between the two women.

To conclude, this scene is extremely crucial in communicating the themes of observation and partnership within Portrait of a lady on Fire. These themes are conveyed through the use of mise-en-scene, repetition, difference, sound, dialogue, acting, and cinematography. In addition, this scene reveals deeper meaning, reveals implicit meanings, contributes to storyline development and character development, and helps the characters accomplish both their public and private goals. This scene is also an example of how the female gaze can be used in film to create meaningful relationships, which is rarely done in Classical Hollywood films. Typically, films that depict relationships are through the male gaze (or male perspective) where there is often a power imbalance. The theme of equal partnership in this scene (and the film as a whole) rejects this patriarchal perspective and makes the relationship seem more grounded, meaningful, and realistic. This relationship through the female gaze creates an emotional connection between the characters and the audience, making the themes and messages of this film even more impactful.

Works Cited

Sciamma, Celine, director. Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Amazon, Goettsch Partners, 2019, www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/amzn1.dv.gti.8eb8d454-b988-2731-2597-144afe2dc9ee? autoplay=1&ref_=atv_cf_strg_wb.
The Guardian. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire Review – Mesmerised by the Female Gaze.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 1 Mar. 2020, www.theguardian.com/film/2020/mar/01/portrait-of-a-lady-on-fire-review-celine-sciamma.
Syme, Rachel, et al. “‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ Is More Than a ‘Manifesto on the Female Gaze.’” The New Yorker, www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/portrait-of-a-lady-on-fire-is-more-than-a-m anifesto-on-the-female-gaze.
Burgos, Danielle. “Where Was ‘Portrait Of A Lady On Fire’ Filmed? The Crew Traveled All Over France.” Bustle, Bustle, 14 Feb. 2020, www.bustle.com/p/where-was-portrait-of-a-lady-on-fire-filmed-the-crew-traveled-all-over- france-21798008.

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