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Passion Ablaze

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, dir. Céline Sciamma, 2019.

Much has been made of the concept of the "male gaze" in the arts, particularly in film-making. Film is the most voyeuristic of mediums as we do not merely stare at a captured static image, as we do with a painting or a photograph, which has been stripped of its own agency, caught as it is in a frozen dimension of time, but instead our eye follows the camera's eye which follows the characters' unfolding actions sequentially. As such we are privy to the moments which precede any given image and the moments which succeed it and this licence grants unrivalled power to the viewer: we sit motionless in our seats peering at a space on a wall which in essence is transformed into the projection of a view into that same space. One may as well be kneeling at a key-hole and squinting with salacious intent.

Cinema also transcends the transactional aspect of the viewer-subject dynamic by supplanting it with the mores of hierarchy: there is something of the master-slave binary at play when the seated patron consumes (for he is a consumer, he has paid for or acquired the right to view) any quotient manner of action laid out before him. Therefore, just as agency is restored to the animation of image so it is again subsumed by the onlooker. While for matters of practicality the onlooker does not command the nature of animation, authority is nonetheless deferred to a proxy who does this organisation on our behalf and is what we call "a director." Long story short: the history of mainstream consumed film is that of the delegated male director, hence our experience of the moving image is organised and curated by the male way of looking: the "male gaze".

Yes there are many examples of fine films by female directors. Some male directors might arguably blunt their "gaze" while others "sharpen" theirs. The problem is that the convention of film is structured so that we look on a scene with a patriarchal sensibility, even if the viewer is female, even if they are children. It has been shaped by a history of scene-framing which has been fashioned and stylised by the male perspective. Just in the same way we have been raised in the west to hear a conventional eight-tone musical scale as sounding "natural" as opposed to atonal or pentatonic modes, so too has our eye been influenced to the inclinations of the male voyeuristic tradition as if by a process of evolution. We may not realise that we do, but the fact is we are programmed to any number of biases when we view or consider literally anything. Nothing we see is ever unfiltered.

Hence, Portrait de la jeune fille en feu or The Portrait of a Lady on Fire comes as a complete revelation, to me at least. Never before has a film completely radicalised my way of 'seeing' art: it is the equivalent of having your sunglasses yanked off just as someone shoves a naked 1000w light bulb in your face. Somehow the sublime achievement of Céline Sciamma is to seemingly deconstruct an entire established canon of cinema and to defiantly remake film entirely stripped of all codified subjectivity. Of course no work of art can entirely be without subjectivity, and arguably by stripping conventional subjectivity in this way Sciamma is injecting her own determined subjectivity even more ferociously, but here you begin to feel as if you are not so much possessing the images before you as you are living in consort with them. You do not feel a net consumer of imagery but an equal participant. Indeed, such is the egalitarian feel of the film the characters are granted such agency that you are granted agency along with them: you no longer feel consigned to your seat as a passive, seedy observer but more like someone who has a genuine investment in the unfolding trajectories of them all. This is illogical, hyperbolic, but the film is so freeing and liberating as to be akin to an out of body experience. Such metaphysics arise because the entirety of the project is underpinned by a commitment to a kind of drama which is so liberated from the normal traits of cynicism. It amounts to a span of captured naturalism so life-affirming and true as to be positively transcendent. In this sense, it shares several similar traits with Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name, but whereas Guadagnino had to supersede the classical male-gaze dilemma by entirely buying into it and then deconstructing it from within, Sciamma seems to have freed herself to circumvent it from the offset.

But how does she achieve it? The screenplay is first and foremost a literary wonder. As scenes unfold and dialogue uttered, you can imagine them unspooling from the pages of a great French novel. There is no source material: the script is original which is all the more impressive that it feels as if it contains the cumulative wisdom and richness of a 550 page tome. In the same way that the best long-form fiction draws a reader into the very languidness of writing, the very feeling of envelopment you get from escaping into the page, this film is written in a way which takes you over, body and soul. I have no way of knowing whether this is intentional or not, but the opening sequence is of the main character, the painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) sailing towards an isolated island in Brittany and the camera captures the rhythm of the sea and the undulations felt being in the bow of a boat. It establishes immediately a tempo which the film sustains: indeed, many of the backdrops to the film's romantic and dramatic set-pieces are shot against the raging, crashing ocean and the contrasting turbulence and serenity of this establishes a hypnotic tonality which is the framework from which the film projects.

You can feel the similar ebb-and-flow momentum rise and fall in the characters as the exposition plays out but you also feel so attuned to this rhythm that you find yourself lulled into a sense of suspended delirium. The film is paced in such as way as to eschew the penchant for sudden interjections of discord or "heightened drama" and the effect is to never feel jolted into straining your belief in the cogency of the characters. Similarly, another 2019 film, Atlantique by Mati Diop played with the metaphor of the sea and its rhythms in relation to the feminist viewpoint, but not in a way which outright defied the conventions of a script like Sciamma does. By espousing such naturalism, Sciamma signals her defiance against the schema of the proto-commercial screenplay and realigns herself with the fundamentals of the French New Wave in a manner which also seems to go a step beyond even that achievement too.

In fact the question of rising drama and climax in this film is worthy of an extended dissertation in itself. Sciamma throws out the rule book entirely. Just when a character should be outraged by betrayal, they are instead intrigued by motivation. Just when you expect anger you are rewarded with understanding. Just when the central premise of the film is established and suspense set-up, she breaks it and changes course 180-degrees. While we fully expect a feminine-slanted film to centralise our emotions against a sub-plot such as abortion, we find ourselves feeling ambiguous, conflicted, sympathetic, touched, heart-broken, relieved, empowered. While normal drama feeds off the tension created between apposing characters, here the tension is inverted into a tripartite unity of purpose way before it has any business doing so. All established archetypes about authority/subservience or the mistress/maid trope are devolved instead into attitudes of sorority, solidarity and empathy. When a moment of climax is reached, it is either brazenly snuffled out or handled in such unexpected ways as to still be breathtaking, powerful, heart-wrenching but also entirely authentic, natural and lacking any contrivance whatsoever. A woman's dress catches on fire, for goodness sake, but in Sciamma's hands it is poetic, uneventful and affirms such underlying passion without for a second ever seeming overwrought or pretentious. This is a movie which has not one, not two, but three staggering denouements all coming one after the other in such rapid succession that the pay off is genuinely rhapsodic. People around me in the cinema were actually left breathless they were so affected: one woman had a choking fit; others were in floods of tears. And after all that it hardly seems as if anything really that astonishing has even taken place: except life itself. This is true drama.

Deftly Sciamma starts with a conventional patriarchal framework and then sets about to un-knit it stitch by stitch while still leaving a sense of this toxic template being in place. Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) is a young noblewoman from a grand old family in decline. Her mother, the Countess, (Valeria Golino), herself Italian and married off into French aristocracy, has now arranged for her own daughter to be married to a wealthy Milanese man. Her first daughter was betrothed to the same man but fell to her death from the cliffs of their island home. Or, did she jump? Héloïse has been recalled from the convent against her will. She refuses to have her portrait painted for dispatch to Milan which is now the demand of her weary suitor (the equivalent of Tinder for the time) and so the Countess has hired Marianne to come to the island and observe Héloïse and then secretly paint her in private. This is the premise of the film, but the film is both about this and not really about it at all.

The Countess wryly observes that when she herself was married off she arrived at her new marital residence to be met with a portrait of herself already hung and presiding over affairs. The portrait of this age was a commodity which brokered lineage; it stripped individuality; it signified authority as opposed to personality. For this reason, Marianne's first attempts at painting her subject are a failure not so much because she is having to creep about and do it behind veils in secret but because she is doing it as a commercial transaction (a wage) to be used as currency in another commercial transaction (marriage). When Héloïse finds out, however, there is no outrage, no temper, and instead she invites Marianne to paint the portrait again, this time as her "true self" more as an act of self-preservation before her nuptials than of anything else. By this stage it becomes clear that the metaphor of "gazing" is starting to proliferate: Marianne has been gazing at Héloïse in secret who has in turn been gazing back at Marianne, also in secret. We gaze on both characters and in a way, they are gazing back at us too in as much as these two women present to us our own sense of disquiet with the nonsensical modalities of society, even two hundred and fifty-odd years later. Not much has changed, we fear, on the front-lines of social class differences and gender inequality.

At one point Héloïse comments that just as the subject is being viewed by the artist, so the subject views the artist in turn: the subject is always an imprint on the artist just as the artist makes an imprint of it. As such, Sciamma plays with the notion of Héloïse dressed in her startling white wedding dress which Marianne then begins to see at odd moments in the house: an imprint on her consciousness. The film also plays on themes of doubles all the time: mirrors are a recurring motif and the way Sciamma stages a particularly beautiful scene of Marianne drawing a self-portrait of herself in the pages of Héloïse's prized book (containing the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, which itself it cleverly woven into the story) for her as a keepsake while using an oval mirror which nestles across Héloïse's lap is revealing of the idea of lovers becoming mirrored images of one another - the image collapses into itself the closer it approaches the glass' refractive surface, similarly as approaching lovers melt into one another when their bodies come together. Of course the passionate love affair between the artist and her muse ensues with headstrong abandon, despite both knowing separation is imminent when the Countess returns with news that the wedding is set and the dress purchased. Even then, there is hardly any overt sentimentality between the parting lovers, except of course there is and it happens with feeling and knowing as opposed to gesture and action: something we sense so fully and profoundly sitting as onlookers, confined and helpless towards their plight as we are to our own, in a way. The very anti-theatricality of this film is its most winning aspect and ironically its most theatrical element too.

A fourth character, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) is the chateau's maid but she is treated more as a younger sister. When the Countess is away, the three girls form something of a triad of resolve and unity. Issues such as menstruation and unwanted pregnancies are calmly and lovingly dealt with between them. There is no moralising, no high and mighty judgement one may suspect to find in a world dominated by the hypocritical patriarchy. In fact, men are almost entirely absent from this film: it is the antidote to The Shawshank Redemption or Das Boot or even, more contemporaneously, 1917. The other women on the island's village also step in to help in a quiet, pragmatic and non-sensational way: they are a community, they are a Utopia of feminine strength and endurance and wisdom. The scene where Sophie goes to a matronly figure for a solution to her situation is undertaken almost wordlessly but Sciamma frames it so carefully and considerately and with such astonishing power that we are aware of the intrinsic complexities and the unnatural emotional toll of the undertaking nonetheless.

There are three mind-blowing resolutions to the question of the interrupted love affair between Marianne and Héloïse but each has been so microscopically foreshadowed earlier that when they occur they serve to bridge and complete a sense of the very longing they are scored to capture. Two halves seem to unite in these moments and you feel as if their love has in fact never been broken even though bodily they have been apart now for several years. It leaves you with an overwhelming sense of the power of such feeling when cynicism is removed and the natural fires stirred by true love when allowed to blaze on in time.

Finally, I have not mentioned the strength of the acting because, seemingly, and such was the fiery chemistry between the leads, there was no apparent acting of any description I could detect in this film.


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