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‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ celebrates the female gaze

Dan Webster

For this week's Spokane Public Radio movie review, I wrote about Céline Sciamma's film "Portrait of a Lady on Fire." Following is my review:

In “These Truths: a History of the United States,” author Jill Lepore attempts to address all those aspects of American history that, until now, have been paid little attention to by historians.

As Lepore pointed out in an interview with Newsweek magazine, one of the most glaring topics lacking in most American history books involves women.

“There’s some twee nonsense about Abigail Adams, and then Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem make a cameo appearance,” Lepore said. “That's the end of our story! It's a complete dismissal of women as political actors and historical actors.”

Not that the U.S. owns a monopoly on such attitudes. Though there are exceptions, the general rule of most societies over time has been that men act and woman support them as they do so. Or not, depending on the situation, of course. Either way, as the historian Lepore contends, the story of history centers mostly on men.

Which is largely why the last few years have been so illuminating, in society at large but especially notable to those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time watching movies. Not only have more and more women found their voice in film, with filmmakers such as Kelly Reichardt, Greta Gerwig and Patty Jenkins joining the likes of such veterans as Jane Campion and Agnes Varda, the subjects they have explored have demonstrated a distinct woman’s touch.

Take “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” written and directed by French filmmaker Céline Sciamma, which is available to stream through Hulu. In one sense, it’s a story that focuses on what long has been considered a forbidden kind of love. Yet in another, it’s a searing study of the difficulties faced by women who, throughout the centuries, have longed to pursue lives on their own terms.

Set in the late 18th century, Sciamma’s film focuses on two women of vastly different means. Marianne (played by Noémie Merlant) is a painter, an independent woman attempting to make her way in an art world unsurprisingly dominated by men. Héloise (played by Adèle Haenel) is a woman of higher social standing who has been torn away from a convent and, because of the mysterious death of her sister, been promised in marriage to a nobleman from Milan.

Héloise’s betrothal has been arranged by her mother (played by Valeria Golino), and she rebels against the plan by refusing to pose for her portrait – which her mother has promised to send to the would-be groom. Seems the nobleman, no fool he, wants to have at least some idea of what he is, in all but name, purchasing.

So the mother comes up with a plan: Hire Marianne under the guise of her being Héloise’s companion, have her join Héloise on walks along the same cliffs from which her sister fell – or, perhaps, from which she leaped. In her down time, Marianne would then construct the portrait from memory.

Not all goes as planned, though, as the two young women fall in love, or lust, however you want to describe it. And as they engage in mutually satisfying bouts of passion, Marianne’s attempts to capture her newfound lover on canvas change accordingly.

That there can be no traditional happy ending is clear from the start, as Sciamma tells her film in flashback, years after the fact, from Marianne’s point of view. In one interview, Sciamma made it clear that she purposely didn’t want a finale that was either frozen-in-time happy or tragic. “Our great loves are a condition of our future love,” she said. “The film is the memory of a love story; it’s sad but also full of hope.”

Yet that break from pop filmmaking doesn’t make what Sciamma has created any less poignant. On the contrary, it enhances the feeling. From the soulful gazes of her film’s two protagonists, to the repeated references to women bemoaning the powerlessness of their positions, Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a testament to the depths of feminine desire.

The kind of desire that, applied not just to notions of love but to everything that life has to offer, can no longer be ignored.