Film is a medium of storytelling. We see ourselves through our stories, what’s onscreen is a way of watching our stories on a larger scale. However, film hasn’t always shown everyone. Gay, trans, disabled, and non-white people (the latter at least in Western film), have been historically underrepresented onscreen. When our stories are shown, they’re often made by outsiders, and lesbian films especially have been a male gaze fantasy for years. The representation we need is made by us; we tell our own stories, our truth. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma‘s follow-up to a coming of age trilogy, is finally that representation on a sweeping scale, at least for lesbians. There is an impact when truth is put to fiction, and even being overlooked by awards bodies won’t stop the film’s impact.
The film has begun to stand for more than it initially was. It’s no longer just the story of an artist and muse falling into a love that is unspokenly forbidden, but a manifesto to many. Adèle Haenel has become a martyr of sorts in the French industry after speaking up about her own experiences of sexual abuse by a director as a child, the first of a new wave of women coming forward in solidarity. Haenel and Sciamma were present at a march in Paris in outcry against the widespread violence against women across the country. In the above photo, they pose with fans holding a sign reading “nous sommes les jeunes filles en feu,” which translates to “we are the young girls on fire.” The film has become a symbol of women’s empowerment in France, a statement to take charge of one’s future. It has very few lines spoken by men, an unspoken message as to whose voice we’re hearing both onscreen and off. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is for these young girls on fire, itching to create but scared to begin, and desperate to fight society for what is right.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is special because it represents the lesbian experience from a place of truth, since both the director and a lead actress (Sciamma and Haenel) are lesbians, and were a couple in the past. It is specific. Héloïse’s lack of attraction to men is made integral to their romance, a facet of lesbian desire that is usually glossed over. Once the relationship grows physical, it is never fetishized. Any scene that may feel erotic almost seems to be an inside joke, like the shot of a hand in an armpit made to look vaginal. Here, sex is not something to leer at, but a fact of life, and one that can be joked about like any other. Many have called this “coining the female gaze,” but that implies that the view is adjacent to male gaze films a la Blue is the Warmest Color. This is something more, a kind of naturalism that treats sex as an act instead of a performance, highlighting the tender intimacy without the voyeurism.
It feels real because it is real. Not real as in historical, but real emotionally, a real relationship translated back in time after its close. So many cinematic depictions aren’t from the heart, only constructions of some idealized desire. These women are real, they take their time to figure things out, and aren’t always sure what they want. Héloïse sometimes misunderstands what Marianne thinks of her, and Marianne is hesitant to open up, even more than the initially angry and guarded Héloïse, though Marianne does her best to hide it. They fight over where to go with their love story, their imaginaire, and they make up and forgive when that choice is taken away. The realness, the sincerity, comes from the past relationship between Sciamma and Haenel. Marianne is, in a way, an avatar for Sciamma within the film, a painter who presents the story of a woman’s life to package her. One is by film, and one by wedding portrait (much more of a death march to the inevitability of fate than the former), but the artist’s lens is clear and present. What Sciamma creates is her truth, her process of accepting the past, and her hopes to connect with the world.
The women behind the film claim it can change the world. And maybe it can. In an interview with Vulture, Sciamma says “images and culture can change culture”. She recalls turning to her DP to say “We are saving the world.” Sure, it’s a grand statement to make, but isn’t art an integral part of the world? She goes on to say “It’s actually modest. It’s not about saying ‘We have this power’. It’s about believing in our power. It’s about believing in the power of culture and cinema. It’s not believing in our power, it’s believing in the power of what we do. Which I do. Maybe you’re gonna be important for, I don’t know, several hundred thousand people. But that’s a lot. If it was a cult, it would be very successful.” Art is how we take ourselves out of the world, and then relate it back to our world. Sincerity is what resonates, especially when we connect with art. A love story for the ages, Portrait of a Lady on Fire gives that love to us, to lesbians who wish to see themselves, and to anyone who’s felt trapped or struggled to hold onto the little moments. These little moments, flashes of memory, are what we keep with us, by reminding the world to relish our time, film becomes a gift.
And people noticed. The film has amassed quite a large online following, with hundreds on Twitter, mainly lesbians, calling themselves the “Portrait Nation.” Sciamma has noticed, saying at the end of an interview with Indiewire, “It’s not about my dream, a little girl’s dream, because little girls don’t have dreams, they have plans. It’s really about the fact that the movie stands for something, and I want to support that here. That’s why I like my job so much, cinema is a nation. I see on Twitter, there’s people calling themselves Portrait Nation. That’s beautiful. To me, it’s about campaigning for cinema, that’s my commitment.” This film is for that little girl she mentions, those “little girl’s” wanting to chase dreams and tell stories, especially the stories of their lives. It’s become about the power of cinema to bring people together from across the world, united because they connect with a story. What we need now is sincerity, in a time where everything is filtered and overseen, it is honesty and humanity that we cling to. Sciamma has always made films for the young girls on fire, and maybe this will be the inspiration to us all: to create, to love, and to fight as we please; a manifesto for those who feel stuck. It’s a manifesto telling us not to regret, but to remember, all the mistakes that came before us, how we can carry on and find beauty within stolen moments, and leave this world having filled it with every idea and creation we can. The fire has been lit, and it shall only continue to grow.