Lesbian Love as Invention: Céline Sciamma’s ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ (2019)

“‘Do all lovers feel as though they’re inventing something?’” 

-Héloïse, Portrait Of a Lady On Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is, at its core, a film about invention. While Marianne (Noémie Merlant), creates a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), she also creates her own romance with her subject. However, the relationship between the artist and her muse relate to something much greater than the traditional heterosexual romance. It represents how the definition of love between two women is unable to be built on the foundation of a patriarchal society, and how it must be dictated by their own unique experiences as women. 

Historically, lesbian women used more feminine means of communication to describe their love for one another. Letters, articles of clothing, and makeup were all used to share romantic feelings with one another. The greatest manifestations of love between women relates to their creation of metaphysical language to depict it. This idea is used within the film to depict the operation of lesbian identity. 

Declaring this lesbian love story with her own authentic voice, Céline Sciamma creates a desperately needed break from the male gaze in lesbian filmmaking. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, art acts as its own metaphysical language. Marianne, when creating her piece, begins to notice the tiniest details of her subject’s behavior, such as the way she bites her lip. Reciprocally, Héloïse observes the artist. The mutual connection between the two leads is as kinetic as many films dream to be. They do not proclaim their love with traditional language. Instead, their descriptions of one another reflect their passion. It is a simple, yet devastatingly romantic portrayal of how the love between women operates in patriarchal societies. Love is paid through attention, something many women have not felt by the male gaze.  

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With this sentiment, Marianne is as much a part of the art piece as Héloïse. The amalgamation of the two women’s emotions toward one another leave a testament beyond words. An artist’s love can be felt through looking at the piece. Héloïse mixes colors and paints thin lines on the canvas. Her contributions do not make her seem as if an object being painted. The communal effort allows the relationship to be more than transactional. The egalitarian notion of two women sharing their lives with one another is reflected within this simple act. They are bound together through the creation of the piece. 

In addition to the painting, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is a recurring motif throughout the film. Its preoccupation with the reason why Orpheus looked back to Eurydice by the two leads is fascinating in defying convention. By inverting the myth to reflect their own love story, Marianne and Héloïse are creating their own language within convention. Reading between the lines is reinvention. It is the very core of lesbian identity. Just as women today try to find themselves within heterosexual relationships depicted in the media, the two leads try to find themselves in mythology. Operation of lesbian identity revolves around this redefining of the past, allowing them to find themselves within art. They insert themselves into the story, creating their own Romantic language beyond the confines of patriarchy and heterosexuality.  

I find it fascinating that art is the primary mode of communication between the leads. Art is often seen as an intensely personal medium, so its association with the relationship between them magnifies. It seems as if their personal experiences as women help them to understand one another completely, allowing them to fall in love with one another in a matter of days. In the film, art is the medium that gives their love a tangible mark, far greater than any words. Art lasts far beyond the existence of oneself. By creating their own narrative, they leave a testament to the importance of their affection. It is a heart wrenching portrayal of how love can transcend these obstacles of heteronormativity. 

In fact, the love between women acts as a sanctuary from the outside world. Their love is of their own agency. It creates itself. Not once is it escalated through expository language of its own. Reading between the lines is necessary to understand the sheer magnitude of love between the two leads. Therefore, many aspects of lesbian experience goes unnoticed by heterosexual viewers. By design it seems, Sciamma creates a romance that truly understands what it means to love another woman. For lesbians, it is a film that reflects many aspects of identity not understood by the male voices that create our stories for us. 

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As a lesbian myself, Sciamma’s newest film reflects something untapped within the medium. It is nothing short of breathtaking – every moment seems as if it was taken from a romantic epic. Portrait of a Lady on Fire defines itself as its own entity, a remarkable story that seems to go against everything we understand film to be. Without men in front or behind the camera, we experience romance much differently. It is metaphysical, standing as an antithesis to heteronormativity. It shows us that love can mean something beyond self. It affirms one’s identity as well as their love for another, breaking the very foundation countless films have built themselves on. 

It is nothing short of revolutionary to have lesbian women depict their own romance. If there is any testament to the importance of women loving one another, it is within this film. Inherently, creating a story when there is so little there has to involve invention. The metaphor of creation lies within the act itself. It erases all presumptions inherent to heterosexuality and womanhood. Love, in lesbian terms, erases the basis of inequality in the love between women and men. 

This creates an important result: something feels entirely different in Sciamma’s most recent work. Its hopeless romanticism seems new, even though I cannot say that it is defying the norms. Instead, it creates new norms for itself to operate in. It acknowledges the long history of women separating themselves from society to create something for themselves. Without seeing themselves in society, women had to define for themselves what it meant to love one another. 

The development of the film gives a platform to women that are unable to relate to love in media. The film itself is a manifestation of the importance of the creation. By seeing love beyond the confines of gender and patriarchy, lesbian viewers are finally able to see something that puts to words what is nameless. It is a remarkable piece of work that we will be analyzing for decades on its importance. Its depiction of lesbian love will pave the way for many LGBTQ+ filmmakers to come.