Author: Molly O'Gorman

Portrait of a Lady on Fire : a Burning Feminist Performance

By Solveig Palazzo

 

Introduction

Very often I am disappointed when I go to the cinema, because I had great expectations of the movie I was going to see. But last month when I saw the French movie Portrait of a Lady on Fire (the original title is Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu), I was astonished by this masterpiece. Moderate and simple, but tremendously vibrant, taking place in the 1770s but resolutely present, sensual and bashful at the same time, the film directed by Céline Sciamma is moving from the beginning to the end.

The plot

On an isolated island of Brittany in the end of the 18th century, an artist named Marianne is asked to make a portrait of a young woman called Heloise, who is about to get married to a Milanese Lord. But Heloise refuses this wedding, and hence, refused to be portrayed. Marianne will pretend that she is a companion lady in order to observe Heloise and paint her without her knowing it. But soon, confusion develops between the two women, and deeper feelings grow. From a frozen and cold atmosphere to thaw and burning, the frame evolves through different vibes without being caricatural.

A lesbian love story

The main theme that arises when we think of this movie is the subtle, tender and intense love story between Marianne and Heloise. It feels good to see a lesbian relationship onscreen without having the (outrageous) bias of the male gaze. Indeed, the director Céline Sciamma is a woman, and almost all the actors are women in the film. We can see men, whose lines are very limited, at symbolic moments of the movie: in the beginning and at the end, as if the story between these women was a fortunate parenthesis in this male dominated world. The only man that is explicitly mentioned is Heloise’s fiancé, but this consideration soon fades away, leaving space for the tension between the two main characters. The film is very aesthetic, and the shots are often very long, taking time to enhance the glances and the skins, the clothes and the landscapes, the difference between the confined atmosphere of the house and the unleashed and raging wild of the sea. Silence is everywhere, but everything is said. In a very simple way Sciamma shows us the emergence of tenderness and passion, without making it seem artificial.

 

Female gaze in arts

Arts are very present in the movie, starting with the main theme: a portrait. Marianne is an interesting character: indeed, she is an artist which was scarce at the time for a woman. She reveals that she had had naked models, adding to her rebellious personality. She also plays the piano, and an important discussion between Heloise and Marianne takes place when Marianne plays in front of Heloise. They are both transported by the music and they appropriate it. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons has a significant value in the movie where music is rare and infrequent. Furthermore, Marianne sees Heloise through her creative mind and is inspired by her.

 

Feminist matters

Many aspects of the film are related to feminist matters. Apart from Heloise and Marianne, a third character is very important: Sophie, the domestic. Indeed, Sophie is a young girl evolving separately and with the main characters. She is living in the house with them and raises the topic of abortion. The word is never clearly used, but several scenes show the processes women at this time had to go through in order to be free to dispose of their own bodies. In addition, the film clearly shows a community of women, the sisterhood that relates them to each other. In a magnificent scene, a group of women sing around a fire. A great feeling of empowerment is associated to this moment, almost sacred. Besides, the question of Heloise’s refused imposed wedding with a man she never met, not having the choice of the life she wants to live, and a form of resignation express various forms of domination women suffered from at the time, and still today in a comparative perspective.

 

A new representation of sexuality

Some sex scenes are indeed suggested in the movie. It has nothing to do with what we could have seen and probably being shocked in La Vie d’Adèle (male gaze again and projection of heterosexual fantasy on what lesbian sexuality is). The scenes show a form of lesbian sex which of course doesn’t mean to describe them all. But still it shows bodies and breathings and caresses with very relevant privacy. Once more we get out of the heteronormative sexual intercourses in cinema, and we get to see a representation of sexuality through the eyes and the camera of a woman. It makes a big difference.

 

Leading figures of the contemporary and feminist French cinema

 

It is not the first time I am amazed by Céline Sciamma’s movie. Indeed, in 2007 she had started to question other-than-straight orientation with her film Water Lilies (Naissance de pieuvres) in which one by the way Adèle Haenel, who plays Heloise in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was already breath-taking. In 2011, Céline Sciamma interrogates gender identity and expression with Tomboy, the story of a ten-year-old girl who says to everyone in her new neighbourhood that she is a boy. Sciamma is one of the most important film-maker nowadays in France, enlightening fundamental issues on gender, sexuality and feminism. The two main actresses in Portrait of a Lady on Fire are Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel. They embody a new cinema, empowering and challenging norms, which is crucial now more than ever.

 

 

Jane Bond Will Not Be Enough

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It’s difficult to escape the current trend of new versions of classic films with female leads. Ocean’s 8, Star Wars and Ghostbusters are good examples; we also now have Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor, and the idea of a Jane Bond has been circulating for a long time, although she hasn’t yet materialised. All of these have met with significant backlash from certain groups of male fans – Ghostbusters quickly became the most disliked YouTube trailer in film history, and still has 1.1 million dislikes on the platform. I don’t want to engage with this kind of petty misogyny, however; what concerns me more is the lack of will to interrogate the sort of feminism that these films present. Whilst I am as glad as anyone that the thirteenth Doctor is a woman, I do want to suggest that these films and television programmes are not nearly as feminist as we might think.

One of the reasons people find it so hard to imagine James Bond as Jane Bond is because the role of James Bond seems to require misogyny. Jane Bond doesn’t feel realistically predatory in the same way; not that women can’t be predators, but that it’s hard to visualise such enormously successful narcissism in someone whose actions aren’t supported by society. Jane could be as much of a sex pest as James, but she would still read slightly incongruously, because the character takes up a male space in a male narrative. Jane Bond is an extreme example of this, because of the extreme misogynistic entitlement in the Bond films, but learning to recognise works like Star Wars, Doctor Who and Ghostbusters as inherently problematic narratives is an important step in realising that a female lead character is not enough to make media feminist. Much like having Theresa May or Margaret Thatcher as heads of state did not make Britain a feminist state, it’s difficult to claim that Star Wars is now a feminist franchise thanks to the new lead Daisy Ridley – we only need to look at the way Rose, a woman of colour, has been cut out of the saga’s merchandise and publicity, and the all-too-familiar trope the female sacrifice for the male hero (although, unlike most iterations of the trope, Rose survives). Whilst I don’t deny that Doctor Who’s politics have largely improved since the departure of Steven Moffat, it is hardly a great work of feminist media; the narrative of the white person arriving on a planet full of aliens who are often dubiously racialised is a classic example of the white saviour complex in the media. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor’s series opened with the death of Grace, a black woman, drawing the Doctor together with her companions and as the motive that pushes her two male companions to travel with her. Both Star Wars and Doctor Who thus still show the sacrifices of women of colour not as important in their own right but as moments in the journey of the male characters. These are both more subtle iterations of the blatant racism we see in Ghostbusters with the treatment of Leslie Jones’s character, Patty, who is portrayed as the sassy, uneducated mechanic beside the three intelligent women doing the actual saving. If we’re holding up all these media as feminist, we need to ask ourselves who our feminism is for.

White feminism has an awful lot of problems, and one of them is jumping on the train of films like this, but I can’t even claim that these narratives are white feminist narratives – most of them are still male. All of these characters were originally created by men, and the only input of a woman in the writing of the women of Doctor Who, Star Wars or Ghostbusters was Katie Dippold, half of the writing team on the latter film, although not the creator of the individual characters. Ghostbusters is similar to Ocean’s 8 not only in that the characters in the original films were conceived by men, but that men in the “feminist” adaptations seem to have had a lot more say on the creative side of things; one half of each writing team was male, and that man was also the director. When we start to look behind the “feminist” face of the franchise, we see that this is a male narrative, with a woman ventriloquising a male voice. We may centre women’s faces, but we’re not centring their voices and we’re not telling our stories. We’re not allowing for female creativity. Under this model, we don’t even get original stories about women. Instead, women are forced to assimilate into the male creative model, and this is heralded as a success. We cannot create anything new, and we certainly can’t create anything that represents our truth. Rather than revolutionising storytelling, we are absorbed into stale male patterns and expected to be grateful for this “feminist victory”.

Furthermore, we need to ask whose pockets these films are lining. Two more films heralded as feminist successes in this decade were Philomena and Carol, both of which dealt with taboo topics (the Magdalen Laundries and lesbians respectively) on film – but these films lined the pockets of Harvey Weinstein, who has since fallen quite dramatically from grace. Since the #metoo movement took off in the mainstream in 2017, sexual harassment and abuse scandals have continued to come out of the woodwork, and it is not unreasonable to assume that Hollywood is overrun with them. The idea of the money I paid to see Judi Dench as an Irish woman trying to find her child after he was sold by the Catholic Church goes into the hands of a sex abuser makes me deeply uncomfortable. Even if those who are profiting off these films are not rapists of the Weinstein variety, we should be careful about letting the film industry rebrand male narratives and resell them as feminist to capitalise on an emerging audience. A movement for justice being commercialised for profit in this way should make us all uncomfortable – “feminist” media that does not centre the voices of women is not only deceitful, it is in fact a way of perpetuating injustice.

This doesn’t mean to abandon film – but it does mean that we should carefully question the motives behind the recent rush to make so-called “feminist” films whose creatives are largely men, and in our own creative work we should be creating spaces that centre the voices of women and other minorities. We should never confuse that with Jane Bond.

Molly O’Gorman is the Zine Officer for the CUSU Women’s Campaign.

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