It’s 2019 and a new lesbian romance has set hearts alight—and cooled many others. Quite reminiscent of the critical discourse that surrounded Todd Haynes’ Carol in 2015, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire has evoked passionate reactions from the majority of film critics who have seen it, while its naysayers have largely sung the same tune: that it’s too cold, too slow, too inert, too uninvolving. The centering of the female gaze continues to alienate a select group of viewers (and I think it’s obvious who I mean here), the main difference between this film and Carol being the fact that a lesbian is actually behind the camera this time around, interrogating that gaze and opening it out in ways that Haynes (being a man) couldn’t quite do with Carol. The film is not only about the love shared between two women, but about how they see each other and reproduce that gaze on an artistic canvas. It is about communing with the “look” and trying to find its veracity in the transference from reality to simulation. That it’s a uniquely lesbian gaze adds an extra dimension to this, as well, for it’s also as much about overcoming the prescripts of the heteronormative gaze as it is rendering the female gaze faithfully—about moving beyond what the straight world accepts as a desirable transference and being confident about reproducing lesbian desire in art without fear of recrimination. This is essentially the goal that Sciamma sets for her protagonist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant). It is quite possibly the very goal Sciamma set for herself when she began making films.
Lesbian film critics have the most authority to speak to the exact ways Sciamma’s method challenges our preconceptions and yields such astonishing results, and I urge you to seek out their writing when you finish reading mine. This is Sciamma’s gift to them; I can only be the admirer from afar, like the patron of an art gallery seeing a masterpiece alongside dozens of other art lovers. Now, this analogy is not meant to imply that Portrait of a Lady on Fire is only accessible to a select audience. Critics of all stripes have praised this film, which shows that its beauty can be accessed very easily. All I mean is that those who can best contend with this work in critical terms are the ones whose lives are represented here. Their lives, but also their way of loving and looking and desiring. I cannot presume to speak to their experience, nor do I dare try. It is not my place. Page 28 is not mine, but theirs. I am the art lover who walks by and does not “see” that small inscription in black paint, which only holds unspeakable power for those that know the reason for its presence.
Even in a vicarious sort of way, Sciamma’s film is very, very easy to love. Aesthetically, of course, it is rapturous in the way Sciamma blocks her scenes and brings out magical luminosity in both the daytime and nighttime. The sparsity she employs, eschewing a score for diegetic sounds and silences, allows us to tap into this world more attentively, and to feel its profound sensuality more keenly. And when she amps up the volume, like in the pivotal fireside chant that inspires the film’s title, Sciamma seems to create a phantasmagorical erogenous zone for us in which to lay bare our emotions and yield to both the camera’s and characters’ seduction. Through this, I think, all viewers, regardless of their sexual orientation, can access the desire inherent in this text. Not as keenly as a lesbian viewer would, of course, but still keenly enough to be overwhelmed by its potency.
Indeed, Sciamma’s control of the auditory aspects of her film yields an ending that will stagger anyone with a full heart. When coupled with a significant visual clue (alluded, in fact, in this very review), the emotional fullness of Sciamma’s achievements are incontrovertible. What I most admire about this work, then, is how insistent it is to disprove any notion that the female gaze in film relates solely to vision. It doesn’t. I intentionally misled you in that first paragraph. The retina is but one conduit, for our eardrums, too, have a kind of gaze, unconscious as it can be. When that aural gaze is foregrounded beyond the visual gaze, it can hold as much—if not more—emotion than we could ever prepare ourselves for. And that, for me, is revelation enough to make this film wondrous.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire received its Canadian premiere at TIFF in the Special Presentations programme on September 5, 2019.