“Don’t Regret. Remember”: Frictions of History and Gender in Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”Roundup
tags: gender, film, France, art history, womens history
Paris A. Spies-Gans is a historian of gender and art. She received her PhD in History from Princeton University and her MA in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art. She is currently a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows.
IN HER AWARD-WINNING 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, French director Céline Sciamma offers a provocative new vision of how to tell women’s stories from the past. Set in pre-Revolutionary France, her narrative confronts the obstacles that impeded women’s quest for freedom, agency, and equality in an era when none of those were givens. Her portrayal is both timeless and distinct. Rendering women’s stories from historical periods that lacked what we now deem basic sociopolitical rights has long posed a challenge for scholars and artists. By thematizing the tension between narrative and remembrance through the character of a female painter, Sciamma contends that women must claim their own narratives, even amid inescapable inequalities.
The film opens with the sound of charcoal on canvas. “First, my contours […] not too fast,” a woman instructs a class of female art students in late-18th-century Paris. The pupils sit in a row, portfolios balanced on their laps, attentively sketching her features. The spell of the lesson is broken when the teacher, Marianne, discovers that her students have found a painting she stored away long ago, a small canvas depicting a solitary woman on a moonlit beach, dress ablaze — the film’s eponymous portrait. This painting, we gradually come to understand, is how Marianne has chosen to remember two weeks she once spent in Brittany.
Marianne emanates a sense of independence from the start. In an extended flashback, we next see her arrive at a Breton chateau after a boat ride through choppy waters. The year is 1770. A servant, Sophie, leads her to a room that will serve as her bedroom and studio. Later that evening, Marianne asks Sophie about the task ahead of her — she has been summoned to paint the portrait of a young woman, Héloïse, who has returned home from convent school to prepare for marriage to a Milanese man she has never met. The decision to wed is his, hinging on his approval of her likeness. Héloïse’s sister had been betrothed to him and, it is implied, took her own life to escape this fate. Héloïse also wants to reject the marriage, having refused to sit for the last painter, a man. As a result, her mother, the Comtesse, has brought Marianne to paint a portrait in secret, memorizing Héloïse’s features while pretending to be her companion (years before, Marianne’s father had painted the Comtesse’s own portrait). While the plot feels a bit too pat, it succeeds in immediately establishing three contrasting approaches toward female agency and fate: Marianne’s career as an artist gives her partial control over her destiny, while Héloïse is reduced to a seemingly futile gesture of refusal after her sister had chosen death to escape a fate that had been determined for her.
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