Queer Love as Safety from the Patriarchy – An Analysis of Symbolism in ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ and ‘The Handmaiden’

When it comes to period romance movies, one rarely sees protagonists belonging to the LGBTQ+ community or coming from a different background than that of British nobility. Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Handmaiden are two of the most critically acclaimed queer films to have come out in the past five years, and though the latter has more gothic elements, they can both be considered period romances. One set on a lush island in Brittany at the end of the 1800s, the other in a Korea torn to pieces by the Japanese colonial power. What further unites these two films and makes them important works for queer women is their portrayal of a female lover as a savior from the duties that patriarchal societies imposed on ladies of a high rank. The premise that ignites Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s is a French noblewoman, who commissions a wedding portrait of her daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), to be sent to her potential husband in Italy. In The Handmaiden, Hideko (Kim Min-hee) is a Japanese heiress  living in colonial Korea who is set to marry her uncle, who aims to take her fortune for himself.

Image courtesy of Moho Film and Yong Film

In both films, symbols of wealth and nobility undergo a shift to become ones of sapphic love and safety. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Héloïse’s portrait is the object that her mother will exchange with her daughter’s freedom,  by determining whether she will be engaged to a man she does not know. It is physical proof of Héloïse’s inability to have any say in what she would like to make of her future. Before her, Héloïse’s sister had befallen the same fate, but instead decided to commit suicide as a final bid for freedom. Héloïse points out that before she left for the convent where she would hope to remain, her sister’s last words had to her been apologetic, foreshadowing the choice she would end up making. Contrary to her sister though, Héloïse is not able (and does not seem to want to) seek freedom the same way her sister did, especially with her mother keeping a close eye on her to avoid the same fate befalling her other daughter.

As the relationship between Héloïse and her portraitist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) develops, the meaning of portraits undergoes a shift. At first, Marianne is not able to put Héloïse’s true identity on canvas as she refuses to pose and have her portrait done by anyone. Though as Marianne and Héloïse begin to spend more time together, Marianne  is able to catch every detail of Héloïse’s expressions, which she is then able to transfer to her secret portrait of Héloïse – a request made by her mother to ensure the portrait’s completion. In one of the occasions they are together, Héloïse asks Marianne if solitude means freedom. The following day, when Marianne is trying to hide her paint-covered hands, Héloïse confesses to Marianne that she did feel free when she was alone at mass, but that she also missed the portraitist’s presence. It is at that point that Marianne decides to reveal her identity. As Héloïse decides to be honest about her feelings with Marianne,  Marianne can no longer hide herself, and her concealed hands are a last source of guilt for not being truthful to Héloïse. With this, the initial portrait is discarded and Héloïse decides to pose for Marianne for another. This new image is representative of Héloïse taking charge of her own destiny, by posing for a portrait on her terms, whilst showing that Marianne’s presence does not get in the way of her freedom. 

Image courtesy of Lilies Films

Just like Héloïse is left to fulfill her sister’s duties, Hideko had totake her aunt’s place, who committed suicide when she was a child. However, unlike Portrait of a Lady on Fire  the symbol of patriarchal oppression in The Handmaiden is books. Though on the surface one could see Hideko’s uncle’s collection of painted books as a symbol of nobility and wealth, for the heiress they are objects that vilify her and keep her anchored to her uncle. He makes her recite the often pornographic books from his vast collection in front of rich men, so that they can decide if they are interested in purchasing them or not. Hideko, a selling tool in her uncle’s scheme, has to perform some of the acts described in the books for her audience, and is threatened to be taken to a secret room that traumatized her as a child if she does not comply.

The men in Hideko’s life are only interested in her money, and both her uncle and conman Count Fujiwara use books to manipulate Hideko and acquire her wealth for themselves. Hideko’s uncle has used books to subjugate her since infancy, while Count Fujiwara uses them at first as a ploy to get closer to her, and then he convinces her to share her fortune with him by using freedom from her uncle as bait. The more Sook-hee (Hideko’s maid, hired by Count Fujiwara) attends to Hideko’s needs, the more the two grow close. When Sook-hee teaches Hideko how to make love, their attraction and affection for each other are sealed, and they become protective and attentive of each-other. As a result, instead of helping Count Fujiwara, Sook-hee ends up becoming Hideko’s savior. The maid’s and noblewoman’s relationship reaches a climax when Hideko’s uncle leaves for a few days, and Count Fujiwara sets up an escape plan for himself and the two women. When Sook-hee finds out what activity Hideko is forced to carry out for her uncle, and what role Count Fujiwara has in fomenting it, she destroys Uncle Kouzuki’s (Cho Jin-woong) coveted book collection. By ravaging the books, Sook-hee gets rid of Hideko’s symbol of oppression, and frees her from her uncle’s grasp.

Image courtesy of Moho Film and Yong Film

Clothes are a symbol of nobility and wealth that appears in both films in different ways. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the most prominent clothing item in the film is Héloïse’s wedding dress, which Marianne sees in her visions at night. Though the two find freedom in working on the portrait together while Héloïse’s mother is absent, there is the idea of a looming wedding still present and  as the nod to Orpheus and Eurydice’s tale suggests, the wedding dress is the one-way ticket to Héloïse’s personal hell. Héloïse calls Marianne with the informal pronoun “toi” only once in the film, and it is while she is wearing her wedding dress. If that scene is supposed to replicate the parting moment between Orpheus and Eurydice, a married couple, then the informal pronoun – along with the dress – represents how Héloïse feels like the bond between her and Marianne is one of marriage, and she is being send off to marry again against her will. Marianne is only able to give Héloïse momentary freedom, and not to free her from her duties forever.

Image courtesy of Lilies Films

In The Handmaiden, the use of clothes connotes a different ending for Hideko and Sook-hee than for Héloïse and Marianne. In the last chapter of the film, Hideko dresses up in male clothes to pass as Sook-hee’s husband to allow them to escape to Shanghai. Throughout the film, Hideko shows off her elaborate and expensive clothes, going from a scene where she makes Sook-hee open drawer after drawer filled with gloves, from another where she offers her a pair of her shoes, to one where she dresses her up in her own lavish clothes. She does so to comply with Count Fujiwara’s plan, but when she and Sook-hee steer away from it, she drops her ladylike outfits and dresses as a gentleman. Her freedom comes in leaving everything from her confined life behind, including her clothes. Sook-hee frees her and gives her the possibility to start anew.  

Image courtesy of Moho Film and Yong Film

Though period romances often propose the idea of a union based on financial gain and physical safety (e.g. Sense and Sensibility, Far from the Madding Crowd), and that therefore do not portray marriage with a man as a constraint, but rather a benefit, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Handmaiden both succeed in depicting Héloïse’s and Hideko’s ideals of freedom and fulfillment beyond the duties of a wife. It just so happens that the people who allow them to achieve those ideals are women. As such, they are able to form bonds of intimacy and respect which are subtler – and at times stronger – compared to the more traditional courting made by men in other period romance films. Sook-hee and Marianne subvert the archetype of the lady-in-waiting by not just attending to their ladies’ everyday needs, but also helping them in rebelling against the destinies imposed on them, and reaching beyond lives that are worth living just because of money.


Header image courtesy of Moho Film and Yong Film