In ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire,’ the queer female gaze reigns supreme

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I fell apart watching “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” — it was the lesbian cinema experience I’d been waiting for all my life. And as far as French cinema goes, it must be said that in the early 2010s, there seemed to be a point in every queer girl’s education during which she had to watch “Blue Is the Warmest Colour” — all 179 damning minutes of it. 

Nowadays “Carol” is the queen of lesbian cinema, but back when I was an up-and-coming queer girl, “Blue Is the Warmest Colour” was the film that birthed the GIFS that saturated my Tumblr dashboard, the one that I grudgingly sat through. Endeared as I am to international cinema, and endeared as I am to most cinema that concerns itself with queer women, the discourse surrounding “Blue Is the Warmest Colour” is old news. It is a film steered by men, a fact that shows itself in every second of the film’s full-frontal sex scenes.

It got so much attention, however, and was praised considerably alongside all of the valid criticism. And attention is what I’m most concerned with, because, to give credit where credit is due, there have been a number of other lesbian films to come out of France. This includes “Water Lilies,” the 2007 debut film by Céline Sciamma, the director and screenwriter behind “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” None since “Blue Is the Warmest Colour,” however, have been met with comparable acclaim — none, that is, until “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” 

Sciamma’s film is set on a quiet island in 18th-century Brittany, France. Marianne (Noémie Merlant), the daughter of a prominent painter and a painter herself, is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of aristocrat Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who refuses to pose for artists as a show of defiance toward marriage. The progression of their love is told through glances, touches and luscious and symbolic scenes such as the moment in which Héloïse’s dress is set aflame and Marianne, stunned, can only watch. When they eventually consummate their relationship, the scene is done artfully, with more emphasis on how the women get to this turning point and what comes out of it than on what they actually do in bed.

This is what happens when queer women are allowed to tell their own stories: It’s breathtaking, utterly so, and makes for a much more emotionally satisfying experience than when a straight man tries his hand at depicting queer women. 

At 14, I was quite troubled by “Blue Is the Warmest Colour.” The film stirred little in me other than a blank face staring at a dim screen at some odd hour when no one would catch me watching something that could easily be mistaken for porn. Having now experienced what a woman can do versus what a straight man can do in terms of cinematic representation, the reason for my disenchantment feels glaringly obvious. 

Part of what complicates these narratives, though, has to do with the inevitable limitations of a queerphobic society. When we talk about queer narratives, we often talk about happy endings and the merit of them. It gets tiring to witness and rewitness queer bodies being shamed, but taking queerphobia out of the equation in a fictional depiction means an inherent commitment to the “fiction” label. 

Neither “Blue” nor “Portrait” ends with its couple riding off into the sunset together, or even together at all. Yet while the latter broke my heart and brought me to tears, it was also incredibly healing to watch; there is nothing exploitative or melodramatic in the fact that Marianne and Héloïse are star-crossed lovers. Their inability to ever be together in peace is historically, and tragically, accurate, but the film is more concerned with situating us within the possibility of their love rather than the impossibility. 

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” doesn’t want you to imagine a world in which two women in 18th-century Brittany could have ridden off into the sunset — or, more fittingly, the tumultuous waves — together, because that world doesn’t exist and this is a period drama. Why, then, does it hit such key emotional notes? Like most everything, the answer lies in the details, such as the lively discussion about Orpheus and Eurydice that’s really a discussion about their developing feelings, or the scene in which a naked Marianne, completely unsexualized in that moment, sits in front of a fireplace and smokes. It’s a tragic film, but it’s a smart film. It’s a film everyone should be paying attention to.

Seven years ago, “Blue Is the Warmest Colour” was a big deal, radical by virtue of simply existing. Now, however, we’re allowed to demand, to expect, more. With “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” Sciamma has pushed us past the point of settling for the simple existence of representation. She has pushed us considerably toward a space we’re approaching, but haven’t quite arrived at yet: one in which the queer female gaze reigns supreme. 

Alex Jiménez covers LGBTQ+ media. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @alexluceli.