Spoiler Alert: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
The 21st century has been a significant turning point for representations of lesbian and queer women as they surged into sight on international film circuits and mainstream media. While it’s important to celebrate this newfound visibility, a critical question remains — how are these characters being given visual form, with what intention, and for what audience?
Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) (Blue) depicts an intense romance between two women in a coming-of-age narrative centering around identity and class. Although the film received critical acclaim and won the prestigious Palmes d’Or award at the Cannes film festival, director Abdellatif Kechiche has been criticised for his portrayal of queer women’s stories and bodies, with some arguing that his perspective is reminiscent of the “male gaze”. With similar acclaim but contrasting authorship, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) (Portrait) is a period romance about two star-crossed women which director Céline Sciamma describes as a “manifesto about the female gaze”.
Both Blue and Portrait portray queer female pleasure and desire, but each film uses drastically different narratives and cinematography with varying intentions. Kechiche’s film Blue created vast media discussion and attracted international attention for its extended and explicit sex scenes. These sex scenes have a complete lack of editing or cross-cutting, with a lingering camera which provokes discomfort. The lighting is almost studio-lit and there is a distinct lack of atmospheric music or montage, opposing Hollywood conventions and contributing to what some critics have described as a surgical and cold atmosphere.
However, Linda Williams argues that this media backlash and feminist condemnation of the “male gaze” is unwarranted and inappropriately applied.
Notably, Williams suggests that the media outrage around the sex in Blue stemmed mainly from its trailblazing depiction of queer sex.
However, in her championing of sex-positivity, Williams fails to address major criticisms of the film such as its production and exploitation issues. These exploitative working conditions, paired with the lack of lesbian consultation onset, contributed to the film’s controversy. Additionally, the film’s “apparent obsession with the nubile, highly sexualised bodies of its leading actors” is captured in how Kechiche frames female bodies. The character of Adele, in particular, is continuously framed in an objectifying manner, with low angles from behind her as she walks. This choice of cinematography mirrors the depiction of women’s bodies in the classical sculptures and artworks of the gallery which Adele and her lover, Emma, walk through. While this could be interpreted as metacommentary on the objectification of the young female body, Adele’s body is framed this way from the beginning of the film, leading Manohla Dargis to comment on the way the camera “frames, with scrutinising closeness, the female body”
Interestingly, Sciamma uses similar images of classical and romantic artworks as symbolic points of comparison within Portrait. The most common of these references is the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, a motif representing the power of looking and the female gaze. Marianne is a painter commissioned to create a portrait of Heloise, a noblewoman doomed to an unwilling marriage. The tragic myth of the lovers Orpheus and Eurydice is first introduced when Heloise reads the tale aloud to Marianne and kitchen maid Sophie. The crucial moment of the tale, when Orpheus turns to see Eurydice, breaking his bargain and condemning Eurydice to death, is queerly reenacted by Marianne and Heloise in the film’s last moments. As Marianne leaves the island, having completed the portrait, her ghostly visions become reality as Heloise chases after her in her wedding dress, imploring Marianne to “turn around”. Just as Orpheus condemns Eurydice to death through the act of looking, so too does Marianne’s (and subsequently the audiences) perception of Heloise solidify the impossibility of their love.
While both Kechiche and Sciamma deliberately cite and reframe iconic representations of women by men, the intent varies.
Where Sciamma consciously reimagines and challenges historically male ways of seeing from a queer and female perspective, Kechiche’s depiction of women falls short of reframing the objectification evident in the original artworks.
Highlighting how cinema both creates and transforms social images, Sciamma continues to explore gender and sexuality through her centering of female intimacy and desire. The only sex scene in Portrait is shot using extreme close ups of body parts, and these ambiguous images merge into a disorientating picture that evokes a queer passion. Though there are no explicit scenes, Sciamma “refuses to de-eroticise the lesbian love story”. Considering the dichotomy of lesbian sex and intimacy in cinema being either fetishised or non-existant, Sciamma successfully walks the fine line between both.
It must be noted that queer struggles are limited to the white experience in both Portrait and Blue. A continual adherence to the privileging of white perspectives in the film industry has left gaps in the representation of queer women of colour. In one of the opening scenes of Blue, a close-up of a school girl’s face shows her reading from a book: “I am a woman. I tell my story. Consider my words.” before being condescendingly corrected and tone policed by her male English professor. There is a double irony to this scene — is Kechiche himself not attempting to tell the specific experiences of queer women, a story which is not his own?
Cinema is an inherently political institution that routinely diminishes female and queer directors who are “less often accorded the status of auteur and given less weight than their male counterparts”. This adds significance to Sciamma’s position as a queer woman who wrote and directed Portrait alongside a majority female crew, with queer women as leads. In comparison, it prompts questions around Blue and whether a straight, male director such as Kechiche can accurately and authentically tell the stories of Adele and Emma, two lesbian women.
Ultimately, it’s clear that it’s not the length or explicitness of the Blue’s sex scenes that are deserving of criticism, but rather the context in which they were created and the problematic framing of women’s bodies.
“Historically, sex and erotic intimacy between queer women and lesbians has either been censored or “given visual form only in male (and often white, straight, cisgendered) fantasy”.
While there is no denying that showing queer sex on screen can be politically groundbreaking, careful consideration must be given to this long tradition of fetishisation and objectification.
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