The film finds equality between its female characters by embracing the power dynamics that are possible when centuries of romantic road maps don't easily apply.
Written by Elizabeth A. Harris
Céline Sciamma wants you to see that equality is sexy.
In her drama “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” we watch as two women in 18th-century France fall in love. The film, getting a wider American release beginning on Valentine’s Day, has been ecstatically reviewed, won the best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated last month for 10 César Awards, the French equivalent of the Oscars.
Blissfully absent from the movie are the usual characters queer audiences have come to expect in stories about our lives, like the character who can’t handle being gay, the character who was basically straight anyway, or the character who winds up dead. It’s made us a very generous audience, so unused to seeing ourselves on-screen that we’ll put up with all kinds of nonsense dialogue and dead girlfriends.
But what really sets this movie apart is that by looking for equality between its characters, it leaves a trail of delicately subverted expectations. Part of how it does this is by embracing the unique dynamics that are possible when the two people in love are both women.
The story begins with an artist named Marianne (Noémie Merlant) being thrown around a tiny boat on her way to an island off the Brittany coast, where she’s been hired to paint an aristocrat, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Héloïse’s suitor, who is from Milan, wants to see her portrait before he marries her, but she is decidedly not interested and has refused to pose. So Marianne is asked to deceive Héloïse, accompanying her on walks to the beach and then painting her from memory in secret.
When Héloïse’s mother leaves the island for a few days, she, Marianne and a servant named Sophie get to live in a different world for awhile. The three play cards, read and debate the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. There is space for Marianne and Héloïse to be alone. And for almost the entire movie, there are no men in the frame.’
Héloïse and Marianne are rendered as two people fiercely drawn to each other. They are also an intellectual match, and though Héloïse never touches a canvas, they become partners in making art, not only the portrait but also a painting of a woman getting an abortion. That picture is Héloïse’s late-night idea: she’s the one who sets it up, gets Marianne and Sophie out of bed and says, “We’re going to paint.”
Sciamma, who wrote and directed the movie, told me: “There’s all this surprise that lies within equality, that’s a new tension. You don’t know what’s going to happen if it’s not about the social hierarchy, gender domination or intellection domination.”
Even today, the default power dynamic between two women can be different than it is in straight relationships. However progressive the man or strong the woman, we still live in a world with expectations about who pursues whom, who makes more money, who takes care of the kids. In queer relationships, those assumptions don’t have an obvious place to land.
Ellen Lamont, author of the book “The Mating Game: How Gender Still Shapes How We Date,” studied dating practices in San Francisco among straight and LGBTQ people. There, in one of the most liberal cities in the country, even highly educated heterosexual women often occupied traditional dating roles: men should be the one to ask for the date and make the follow-up call, she was told, and they should definitely be the ones to propose.
Gender roles, of course, are not a monolith, and expectation can be influenced by race, culture and class. There are also plenty of elements — money, age or personality, to name a few — that can result in lopsided power dynamics within queer couples. Nonetheless, the lack of centuries of road maps can be freeing.
“There’s definitely room for equality, room for invention,” Sciamma said. “That’s why our stories are erased because they’re dangerous.”
Sciamma wrote the “Portrait” script with Haenel in mind. (The actress was in Sciamma’s first feature, “Water Lilies,” and the two were later in a relationship.) When it came time to cast her lover, Sciamma said she wanted a physical contrast to Haenel — a brunette to her blonde — but she also wanted the “cinematic equality” of casting women who were the same height and age.
“I put the two of them in the frame,” Sciamma said of the actresses during the callback process, “and that’s when I said this thing about equality. I said the word out loud for the first time to somebody else, and myself. To acknowledge this secret within the film as something official that we were going to pursue.”
When Marianne and Héloïse kiss for the first time, they’re on a beach, their faces wrapped in scarves to protect from the wind, and each pulls the scarf away from her own mouth. It is both the perfect physicality for their egalitarian relationship and, Sciamma said, a reaction to a cultural debate in France about whether consent takes the passion out of sex. “That’s an image of mutual consent,” she said. “And it’s hot!”
Other creators have also toyed with the egalitarian possibilities of lesbian relationships, though perhaps not in such forthright ways. Take HBO’s “Gentleman Jack,” which began airing last year. Inspired by the diaries of a 19th-century English landowner named Anne Lister, the first season followed her and a wealthy woman named Ann Walker as they fall in love and, essentially, get married. Lister, with a top hat and waistcoat above her skirts, presents as very masculine, striding around Halifax managing her family’s estate. Walker, in poofy pink dresses and lace, reads, at least at first, as her opposite.
But there are surprises here, too: It is poofy pink Walker who invites Lister to spend the night, says they should kiss and suggests that Lister propose. They don’t stick to the road map either.
In the 2015 drama “Carol,” set in the 1950s, Cate Blanchett’s character, Carol, is older and wealthier than her lover, Therese, played by Rooney Mara. Still, their relationship is much more equal than the not-at-all-partnerships they have with men in their lives. Carol’s husband tries to control her using access to their daughter as leverage, and Therese’s boyfriend enjoys the idea of her while seeming inconvenienced by her actual interests and thoughts.
Even if their affair is dangerous, “Carol,” unlike so many movies about gay people, depicts it without a lot of angst.
“It’s not a narrative about two women meeting and then, ‘Oh what’s happening to us?’ Cate Blanchett is a pickup artist,” Sciamma said. “She sees her, she wants her.”
The same is true of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” The women don’t seem surprised by their desires.
Sciamma said that when she was showing the script around, she was told that the lesbian relationship should be a source of conflict; even Valeria Golino, who played Héloïse’s mother, suggested that. Sciamma still gets pushed back, she said, for not showing more of the “taboo of lesbianism.” But she designed this film to be cheap (it cost 4 million euros, she said, or about $4.3 million) so she wouldn’t have to compromise. And she didn’t. Golino, Sciamma said, has since changed her mind.
“There’s always this narrative around homosexuality and lesbianism, that it should be guilty,” she said. “Why are we always being told this narrative? I don’t remember having this ‘What’s happening to us?’ moment. I was always aware of what was happening.”
And perhaps it’s that, most of all, that makes this movie so exciting for queer audiences: Here we have a movie that is splendid — full stop. But it’s not just about us, it actually gets us.
“Each time people say, ‘It’s love, it could be two men, or a man and a woman,’ I’m glad they feel that way, that they could fit into this imaginaire and into this politics of love,” Sciamma said. “But it’s ours. And they’re welcome.”
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