Watch ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ on Hulu – Stream of the Day
Céline Sciamma’s distinctly female stories are still rare for Cannes, but her success at the elite festival proves that such films and creators don’t need to be outliers anymore.
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To fill the void left by the absence of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, for the next two weeks, this column will be dedicated to films that premiered at the festival over the course of seven decades.
The Cannes Film Festival has always had a bit of a woman problem. Over the course of its 73-year history, the lauded annual event has only awarded its top honor, the Palme d’Or, to a single female filmmaker: Jane Campion, for her 1993 gem “The Piano.” While each festival comes with a brand-new jury tasked with picking the best films from its stacked competition section (some of them even led by women), the very structure of the festival’s selection has long kept women at a distance.
While there is much work to be done to improve that situation, at least one prominent female filmmaker has benefited from the platform of the festival, and may even have paved the way for others to follow her: Céline Sciamma — an out-lesbian, proud feminist, and vocal supporter of the parity pledge — is the rare woman to rise through the ranks of the Cannes elite over the course of her career. Whatever happens with the next edition of Cannes, it’s safe to say that Sciamma reinvented the paradigm for women directors at the festival.
In fact, Sciamma has emerged as a product of what happens when an institution like Cannes commits to emerging talent and continues to support its progress. Her first film, the daring coming-of-age drama “Water Lilies,” premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section in 2007, announcing her as a major talent to watch (it was later nominated for three César Awards, including Best Debut), both in the wider cinematic world and as part of Cannes’ own growing legacy.
In 2014, Sciamma again returned to Cannes, this time with her “Girlhood,” a vibrant slice of life that debuted in Directors’ Fortnight. For decades, the Fortnight has served as something of a bridge between UCR and the competition section. In the meantime, Sciamma’s influence over France’s film culture was growing: The next year, she was installed as the co-president of the SRF (Society of Film Directors), the very group that created and oversees Directors’ Fortnight. In less than a decade, she had established herself as part of the very fabric of the festival, a success story that eventually led to her entry into a still-rarefied group of filmmakers: the ranks of official competitors.
Sciamma’s latest, the lush period romance “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” was a major contender for the Palme last year, and seemed to get closer to sharing the crown with Campion than any other recent competitor. (Incidentally, the award went to Bong Joon Ho’s eventual Best Picture winner, “Parasite,” itself an outlier: It was the first Korean film to ever pick up the award.) Sciamma’s success at Cannes is still a rarity, but it proves that homegrown talent can emerge in an environment that has been, at least on the surface, inhospitable to such rises. That progress is especially heartening because she has maintained her personal obsessions and thematic desires throughout each of her films.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” isn’t just one made by a woman (she also wrote it, and nabbed the festival’s award for Best Screenplay), but one that is wholly focused on a world in which seeing women as they are is not only beautiful, but absolutely essential. Set at the tail end of the 18th century on a desolate island in Brittany, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is wholly consumed with the internal and external lives of women, both in romantic and platonic terms. The majority of it unfolds without the appearance of a single man (a few dot the landscape during its opening, a handful appear in the background during its heart-wrenching conclusion, they are all wholly unimportant to the film’s action).
In short, it’s a film made without even the slightest intrusion of the male gaze. That’s no easy feat, particularly in a story that hinges on the relationship between a pair of stunning women (Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel) that includes a number of charged sex scenes. As Sciamma told IndieWire last year, that was all intentional, though certainly not easy. “It’s not just because I’m a woman behind a camera, because women can actually reproduce male gaze, because that’s our education,” she said. “I think my movies are very much about the female gaze. … But it’s not going to happen magically if you’re a woman. It’s still something you have to deconstruct, but it’s not something you have to be vigilant about. I don’t have to think, ‘How am I not going to objectify this woman?’”
Instead, Sciamma and her film subjectify women, rooting the film in their experiences and nearly requiring that the audience do the same. It’s her signature really, a theme that runs through both “Water Lilies” and “Girlhood,” and even her third coming-of-age feature “Tomboy” (which did not screen at Cannes). While the heart of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is its burning romance between Merlant’s painter Marianne and Haenel as her resistant subject Héloïse, the entire film is populated by uniquely female stories, from the lingering pain of what happened to Héloïse’s sister (the original subject of Marianne’s commission) to the bond the couple form with maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) who is, in turn, navigating her way through a distinctly female issue.
But “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” though made by women and about women and grounded in the experience of being a woman, never demands that its audience approach it that way, as some sort of niche offering (even if some heavy-hitters in the entertainment industry characterize it as such) that lacks universal appeal. Instead, the movie makes a powerful case for seeing women through a lens of their own creation. Everyone who looks seems to agree that it’s hard to look away; it’s even harder to deny their existence.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is currently streaming on Hulu and the newly-launched Alamo On Demand, “Girlhood” is currently streaming on Prime Video, and “Water Lilies” is available on The Criterion Channel.