Ms. Representation: A moving portrait of female love
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author discusses Portrait of A Lady on Fire
Women have a unique way of forging fleeting, yet cohesive bonds with strangers... who are also women. I believe this is a gender-specific show of solidarity, mostly arising from shared unpleasant experiences, especially in public spaces. If you are the only woman in a room, no matter how confident and independent you are, there’s always a small sense of relief when another woman walks in. An unspoken bond is sealed with glances, and you know you will look out for each other. Women will get this experience. It’s a camaraderie that emerged from the mutual acknowledgement of the stress it takes to be a woman, in a man’s world. So in a new episode of ‘Rarely Have We Ever’, this undiscussed, impromptu bonhomie was the most striking factor of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of A Lady On Fire.
At the heart of it, Portrait is a love story. And yes, it shows a lesbian relationship with dignified sensuality and eroticism. But the film perceptively paints the female camaraderie in non-dramatic strokes. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives at a remote mansion to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), at her mother’s behest. Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) is the young housemaid. Despite the love story between Marianne and Heloise, the film spends time building the relationship all these three women share, with the actors breathing life into every nuance. The minute Heloise’s mother leaves the house, the trio settles into an equanimous harmony. Heloise takes care of cooking, Marianne serves wine, while Sophie is left to embroider in peace. They play cards in all enthusiasm. In another film universe, this might seem like a bribe to Sophie, so she does not tell on the lovers. But not in this film. Sophie has her own problems. In a refreshing no-nonsense conversation, Marienna learns about Sophie’s abortion plans. She offers to tag along, taking her to the local herbalist with Heloise giving them company as well. No questions are asked, except for those on Sophie’s health and wellness. And likewise, Sophie doesn’t question Marianne-Heloise's love. No eyebrows raised. And again, no questions asked. Pure understanding.
This nonchalant tone extends to the film’s politics as well, which touches upon a variety of women issues. The restraining gag on a woman’s choice about her reproductive health, for starters (Sophie’s attempts at ending her pregnancy are cries of desperation, a result of the lack of accessible and non-judgemental healthcare). For Heloise, it takes the shape of an uninteresting marriage alliance, extending to how marriages continue to be economic deals for women, and also how they convince themselves into it. For the more autonomous Marianne, it is about the restrictions placed on her art. She needs to use her father’s name to ensure her paintings get exhibited. The film’s most powerful moment comes when Marianne paints a recreation of Sophie’s abortion, with Heloise assuming the position of the herbalist. Reports suggest that Sciamma was inspired by the line from Annie Ernaux’s L’événement: "I do not believe there exists a ‘Workshop of the Backstreet Abortionist’ in any museum in the world." What it means is the systematic lack of documentation of women's perspectives, experiences, the female gaze. It is majestic anger at making a large portion of women mere uninterested bystanders framed on walls, robbed of character and individuality. It isn’t surprising that Orpheus never hears Eurydice’s final words in Ovid’s ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’. But look at how Marianne reimagines it, with Heloise’s influence. What was an abrupt end, is now a farewell moment with the lovers making peace with their choices. That’s representation.
After studying in a co-ed school, one of my first and foremost emotions at being in a women’s college was freedom. The freedom to talk aloud of menstrual cycles, body hair... put your feet up. As Heloise puts it, “Equality is a pleasant feeling.” There was no need to play by the rules of men here, no inhibitions. In fact, these places of interaction for women rather turn into places where they exchange notes on how to handle the patriarchal world. Sciamma claims the film to be a ‘manifesto about the female gaze’, which is true, yes. But Portrait of A Lady on Fire is as much an ode to female camaraderie as it is a tragic love story. The film is a documentation of a few creative women on fire.