“Portrait of A Lady on Fire” is a romantic drama film written and directed by French filmmaker Céline Sciamma. Set in a house in 18th-century Brittany, an island in France, the film tells the story of an unfruitful love between Héloïse, a daughter of an aristocratic family who is reluctantly being forced to marry an Italian courtier, and Marianne, a painter who is hired to paint her portrait. Sciamma challenges conventional feminism and lesbian love through sisterhood, female artisitc recreation and the genuine love accompanied with emancipation.

To begin with, Sicamma subverts the social hierarchy of 18th-century France by portraying the friendship of Héloïse, Marianne, and the maid, Sophie, in scenes that seem almost utopian. In many of the scenes that feature the protagonists, they are simply reading a poem or spending leisure time together. It adds an idealistic ambience to the film that is the direct opposite of the social hierarchy in 18th-century Europe. There is no apparent power dynamic between the aristocrat, artist and maid in the film. They are all equal. Behind the equality is what Sciamma calls girlhood. Girlhood is a form of group dynamics, and Sciamma hopes to emphasize the power of female solidarity that arises from sisterhood, according to a Jan. 30, 2015 Women and Hollywood article. The article quotes Sciamma as saying that girlhood was “especially for girls, a way to find a voice … and who you are.” In these wide-shot scenes of the trio, we can see that they are more equal and independent in the utopian scene than they are when they are alone because the utopia comes from their brave destruction of the patriarchy in ancient Europe.

As a woman artist herself, Sciamma deliberately created the figure of Marianne, a woman artist from the Age of Reason, indicating the oppressed passion and emotions in a time when female awareness of identity emerged. It is well acknowledged that although liberation was the theme of the enlightenment era, this meant male, not female, liberation. In this film, Sciamma chose to focus on the trace of burgeoning and active women artists at that time. “We didn’t get the memo [about women artists], because it had been erased from the history of art,” Sciamma told the Guardian in a Feb. 21 article. The erased history then urged Sciamma to tell a story about women artists. 

For Héloïse and Marianne’s love story, Sciamma takes a more genuine approach than conventional lesbian movies. Her paradigm for “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is the classic movie “Titanic.” A love story, in her eyes, should be in the form of “equality and emancipation,” she said in a Feb. 19 interview with Vox. Presumably, this is the reason why all the women appear in plain dresses — to make them equal and decentralize the importance of physical beauty. Sciamma doesn’t want the characters to be under the spotlight, and they should not be, because viewers usually objectify and sexualize women on screen through the male gaze. Sciamma sees the movie as a “manifesto about the female gaze,” the Vox article said, and there are no major male characters in the film. The film is also critical in the construction of the female gaze. To Sciamma, utopia is not something we dream about, it’s what we experience. The dialogue between Marianne and Héloïse adds another dimension to the female gaze: how women look at each other and people they desire. For example, while Marianne is painting Héloïse’s portrait, Héloïse asks her to stand by her side and stare at the easel, saying, “If you look at me, who do I look at?” Under a male gaze, women usually can’t look directly at their desires. But in Sciamma’s eyes, it is important to look squarely at who they desire as their love for each other grows. 

A “manifesto of female gaze,” however, is not enough to include the diverse dynamics in the film. The film is about romantic and sentimental love that does not eschew the desire to look at each other and how the female gaze recreates art. It is about sisterhood and emancipation that lasts longer than romantic love. In one scene, the trio read a poem that depicted a tragic Greek myth, where Orpheus forever lost his lover Eurydice to Hades when he failed to resist the temptation to look back at her on their way out of the underworld. Marianne interprets that Orpheus “doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.” In the end of the film, when Marianne encounters Héloïse at a theatre, Héloïse, sitting at the opposite stand, does not look back. It is a very long shot that slowly zooms in on Héloïse’s face. As the orchestra starts to perform, Héloïse’s breath catches, her eyes glittering with struggle and helplessness. At that very moment, she gives up the chance to look at Marianne for one last time, but retains the untarnished memory of their love at the Brittany shore, demonstrating her great courage to make the lover’s, and not the poet’s, choice.