Adèle Haenel in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

mk2 Films

Adèle Haenel in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire

The daughter lives in a large stone house on an island off the coast of Brittany, but it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think of her as a princess in a tower. It’s the second half of the eighteenth century, before the Revolution. Her mother has commissioned a portrait of her, to be sent to a suitor in Milan. The portraitist, a woman from Paris, has to take a boat and then scale a rocky cliff, art supplies strapped to her back, to get to the house. Once there, she discovers another obstacle. The daughter does not want to be married, or, therefore, painted. The painter is to observe her by day and work on the portrait in secret at night.

This is the beguiling premise of the French director Céline Sciamma’s film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a romance whose wide American release last February made it one of the last movies you could see in a theater before the first wave of pandemic lockdowns. It was a good way to go out. The movie makes gorgeous use of natural light and candlelight, and has a loving fidelity to ambient sound: no musical score, lots of wind, lapping waves, resounding footsteps, and clattering dishes. No one speaks more than necessary—why say hello when you can nod? The spareness feels like richness, an arcadia of silence and stillness that trains our attention on the actors’ every word and gesture. Eye contact is everything. The painter and her unwitting subject fall in love, naturally. With their faces wrapped against the wind, they initiate us in the erotics of masks.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which is now streaming on Hulu, has been a critical success (it won the best screenplay and Queer Palm awards at Cannes), and it has an admiring following. Critics, as well as Sciamma herself, have talked about the movie as being utopian—the word has appeared in nearly every review and interview—and in certain ways Portrait obviously fits the bill.

It’s a romance between women, and what’s more, an untroubled one—though the lovers are eventually separated by circumstance, they experience neither internal nor immediately external resistance to their affair, a situation that has seemed to some viewers to mark the work as belonging to a genre of high idealism. Sciamma told a reporter at The New York Times that more than once, readers of her script suggested that her characters’ attraction to each other should give them some pause because they’re both women. But Sciamma was determined that the same-sex aspect of their relationship not appear as a source of ambivalence or surprise for them. The result is that in Portrait attraction between women is a force loose in the world, circulating unpredictably among us, with the same claims to transhistorical ubiquity that romances have long made for attraction between men and women.

The affair takes place while the mother is away, during which time painter, daughter, and the maid set up house themselves, taking walks along the cliffs and—the secret of the portrait having come out—posing and painting. Many of the film’s 120 minutes show the painter working: close-ups of hand, brush, and canvas, and shots of her studying her subject, studying her painting, and looking over sketches. In one scene, painter and daughter prepare dinner while the maid works on a piece of embroidery. It’s a slightly heavy-handed touch, but we can see an ideal being articulated: work should be shared equitably. All this takes place on an island that seems, at least within the frame, to be populated entirely by women. One night the soon-to-be-lovers find themselves at what appears to be an outdoor gathering of medicine women that has the feel of a witchy festival.

The island, the women, the equity: Portrait evokes the tradition of insular fictional utopias as well as the specifically feminist utopias that began to flourish in the eighteenth century in England and, slightly later, on the Continent. Sciamma’s allusions to convents and covens—institutions and networks of female alliance that have persisted even in patriarchal societies—are familiar as feminist and lesbian tropes, yet she overlays them neatly with the central tradition of the European romance itself: Tristan too had to make his way across watery channels to reach someone else’s intended bride.

In making the film, Sciamma worked with a female cinematographer and a mostly female crew. She has been active in the 5050×2020 campaign for gender parity in the film industry. She has also been a prominent figure in France’s volatile public reckoning with sexual assault, conspicuously walking out of the César awards earlier this year after Roman Polanski was named best director. She has expressed and, in all of her films—including Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011), and Girlhood (2014)—demonstrated a desire to depict subjects that have been underrepresented in film. Sciamma’s avowed political commitments, the circumstances of Portrait’s production, and certain aspects of the film itself all align, so when someone starts talking about utopia, it’s easy to think you know what they mean. Or at least I thought so—utopian sounded right to me too.


Yet what’s most thrilling about Portrait is hard to reconcile with the idea of utopia. It involves a contract, the exchange of money and services, the traffic of women by other women through marriage (perfectly normal and legal), and the exercise of whatever power the characters have managed to grasp in the world as it was. Sciamma has said that she chose the historical period—around 1770—because it was a time when female painters flourished in France; many were able to earn a living by painting portraits and in a handful of cases to enter the Academy. Of course, women in France can be painters now, but they aren’t likely to be accessories to an arranged marriage—a contemporary setting wouldn’t offer this progressive filmmaker the regressive institution she needs for her faintly gothic premise. For Sciamma’s purposes, the eighteenth century is not simply a setting in which women paint, but a setting in which a portrait painted by one woman might have a dire effect on the life of another.

The film, while acknowledging the oppressive burden of these marital arrangements on the daughter (and on women in this society more generally), does not ask for our active concern. In fact we are meant to enjoy these arrangements, insofar as they are inextricable from the pleasures of the plot. The mother is not unkind. She wants what she thinks best for her daughter, and for herself too, naturally. The painter agrees without visible qualm to deceive the daughter and pretend to be a hired chaperone for her cliffside walks. Mother and painter finalize their plan with low-key bonhomie by the hearth of an opulent room—women of different classes, each with her own means, sealing the undesirable fate of another. It’s only fifteen minutes into the film. Already utopia is a dirtier business than one might have thought.

The daughter is represented at first as a series of tantalizing absences. “What is your mistress like?” the painter, Marianne, asks Sophie, the maid, on her first night in the house. But Sophie doesn’t know. The daughter has only been home from her convent school a few weeks. There had recently been another painter here, Sophie tells her, but he did not succeed in painting the daughter. “What happened?” Marianne asks. Sophie regards her silently for a full two seconds. “I don’t know,” she answers.

Marianne, played by Noémi Merlant, is quiet and self-possessed, elegant in her movements and direct yet tactful in her conversation. On her first night in the house she pries open the crate containing her supplies, takes off her wet travel clothes, and dries off naked by the fire. Wrapped only in her smock, she goes downstairs, finds the kitchen, and helps herself to cheese and wine from a cupboard.

The daughter, Héloïse, when we finally see her, has a different energy: played by Adèle Haenel, her tread is heavier, her movements looser. Her head and limbs and features are larger, her hair imperfectly groomed. The slight asymmetries of Haenel’s features contribute to an impression of restlessness and discontent. Angry at having to leave the convent school and marry, she is wary of Marianne but also curious about this worldly hired companion.

Even before their affair begins, Marianne, in order to work on the secret portrait, finds herself acting the part of a lover. She must look at Héloïse longer and harder than is polite. Each night she tries to recall every detail of Héloïse’s face, and each night Héloïse’s absence (as she struggles to paint her) seems unbearable. She sketches furtively on small bits of paper. She sets up a makeshift studio in her room that can be quickly hidden behind a heavy blue curtain if Héloïse should come in. While she’s at her easel she has only props to work with: Héloïse’s green dress, the hassock in front of the window where Héloïse would be posing if she had agreed to pose. Marianne must make do with having Sophie pose in the dress, and then with putting it on herself, studying her own green-clad form in the mirror, and returning to her easel to try to paint what isn’t there.


Once, while she’s wearing the green dress herself, Marianne hears a knock at her door. “Marianne?” It’s the voice of Héloïse. Marianne rushes behind her curtain and peels off the dress, puts her own back on. From behind the curtain she hears Héloïse walk in. She composes herself, steps out, and is visibly unnerved by whatever it is she sees. It’s Héloïse, waiting for Marianne, sitting straight-backed and attentive on the hassock, exactly as Marianne would have her sit if she were posing. The subject! Materialized, as if Marianne’s efforts of imagination have produced her. Seeing her in reality, Marianne looks almost guilty, the fantasist caught in the middle of a forbidden thought.

Later, the portrait project will be confessed, Héloïse will agree to pose, and Marianne and Héloïse will do the kinds of things that lovers do when they’re falling in love: exchange significant looks, read the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice aloud, lose themselves in a hotly competitive card game. But the foundation for this narrative romance—the sense of the urgency and necessity of the affair—is patiently and wittily established in the film’s first act, whose themes, explored figuratively through Marianne’s work, are the frustration of not being able to see the person you most want to see, and the fear of revealing too early your compromising objective.

In any romance between women we will necessarily be watching women pay close attention to each other. But Portrait is not only about two women—the involvement of Sophie and the mother create a circle of women with crisscrossing aspirations, wishes, and designs upon one another. The ruling-class matron, the convent-school daughter, and the young maid might have gone on forever rehearsing their feudal roles, but Marianne brings with her from the capital the suggestion of other possible relations among women: commercial and collegial as well as romantic, pedagogical, and familial. Women might be apprenticed to each other, might read each other’s books or study each other’s paintings, might employ or commission each other for something other than domestic service or agricultural labor. The points of contact and influence among women could multiply, extending horizontally in many directions.

That most of these possibilities did not actually burst into fruition in the eighteenth century is somewhat beside the point. For fiction, even a relatively small exception like the success of female portrait painters has giddying implications: so many more things that female characters might seek and gain from each other, so many plots thickening. In Sciamma’s eighteenth century we might see a metaphor for a growing sense of cinematic possibility in the early twenty-first: the female director, the largely female crew, the mostly female cast, and an expanding sense of what kinds of roles and relationships among women might be elaborated in a widely released feature film. The film pays homage to feminist communitarian traditions while deriving its energy from the vision of women entering and mastering the world on its own terms. If these are contradictory impulses—to level hierarchies or to fill them with female players?—the film smooths away the conflict: the ancient sorority of medicine women seems to smile with approval on the beautiful couple, and the beautiful couple justifies their approval by being kind and companionable with the maid.

Even after Marianne has fallen in love, she wants to complete the portrait, and do it well, though by finishing it she enables the marriage to go forward and brings an end to her time with Héloïse. From what Marianne tells of herself to Héloïse, we learn that she expects to take over her father’s portrait studio and doesn’t need to marry if she doesn’t want to. She has at some point in the past had an accidental pregnancy. She has covertly arranged to paint nude male models, a practice officially forbidden to women artists (“to prevent us from doing great art,” she tells Héloïse). Marianne, in other words, is an economically and sexually independent person who moves relatively freely through her society. Using her wits she has gained access to forbidden knowledge (the male form). She can paint both male and female bodies, represent any mythological or biblical subject. She strikes a deal with the mother, seduces the daughter, finishes her portrait, gets paid for it, and sends Héloïse off to the Milanese gentleman in something less than a state of innocence, having, among other things, lent her books, taught her to smoke a pipe, and played her some of The Four Seasons on a harpsichord.

As Merlant’s vulnerable performance makes clear, Marianne is not Don Juan: she’s flustered by Héloïse’s forthright stare and sincere in her love. Yet Sciamma makes available a secondary reading of the film, not simply as an egalitarian romance but as the story of an artist-adventurer who gets away with the rewards—material, creative, sexual—that her position allows her. The possibility that women can take what they need from each other and move on without harm, in romance and elsewhere, turns out to be unexpectedly important to the film’s vision. The relatively brief scenes of negotiation between the mother and Marianne have a disproportionate power, I think, because these scenes feel like moments when Sciamma sees through to the other side of the struggle for gender equality in which she is deeply engaged. What she sees on the other side is not a rapturous state of harmony and mutual support, but a state in which women can be a little bit careless with each other, make casual instrumental use of each other. They can afford to: they are no longer objects of concern.

Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite has not often been called “utopian” since its release in 2018—perhaps because everyone in it behaves badly and talks trash, or because it’s just too preposterous to use the word in connection with any depiction of the English royal court. Namwali Serpell came close to it, however, when she wrote in the NYR Daily that the film’s gentle liberties with history create “a kind of speculative space—the alternate history or the counterfactual—where norms of gender and sexuality are not overturned, exactly, but suspended.”*

Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in The Favourite

Searchlight Pictures

Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite

Set in early-eighteenth-century England, at the end of Queen Anne’s reign, The Favourite depicts a cheerfully nasty rivalry involving the queen and two of her courtiers. The action is fast and buoyant, unfolding in a loosely Restoration-ish atmosphere of sex jokes, contests of wit, and mild debauchery. Lanthimos, previously known for high-concept films—including Dogtooth (2009), Alps (2011), and The Lobster (2015)—with darkly satirical impulses, a deliberate flatness of affect, and a downward emotional drag, has not claimed any special interest in making queer sexuality visible onscreen or any specifically feminist motivation in making a movie with three female leads. Plenty of men walk in and out of the frame, but they are decidedly secondary to Lanthimos’s suite of women: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman); her beloved companion and adviser, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), who effectively runs the affairs of state; and Abigail (Emma Stone), a déclassée cousin of Sarah’s who comes to the palace seeking a position and begins as a scullery maid.

Colman’s Queen Anne, poor thing, is all vulnerability: looking to her advisers with soft, guileless, animal eyes and throwing the occasional tantrum. Weisz’s clipped, charismatic Sarah has it all (Parliament, military, palace personnel) under control. Their relationship could hardly be called egalitarian (the concept has as little place in Lanthimos’s fictional worlds as it does in the royal court), but you could say they are well-matched.

In fact their relationship has a touch of psychological sadomasochism about it, one of the fugitive links to Lanthimos’s previous films, which might be said to share an interest in dominant and submissive personalities and the institutions that support them. Sarah, in any case, is high-handed with the childlike queen. When she comes out for a diplomatic meeting in dramatic makeup, Sarah tells her she looks like a badger, then scolds the queen when her face crumples. “Are you going to cry? Really?” She hands the queen a mirror. “What do you think you look like?” The queen looks at her reflection and concedes, submissively: “Badger.”

“Do you really think you can meet the Russian delegation looking like that?”


“Go back to your rooms. I will manage it.”

She and Sarah have been friends since childhood. We soon discover that they are also lovers. The queen demonstrates her extravagant love with extravagant gifts, and with jealousy and possessiveness: as the court favorite and shrewd gatekeeper to the queen, Sarah is the one who has the brilliant public life, while the queen is essentially an inarticulate shut-in. Sarah’s arrogance, and Anne’s resentment, create an opening for Abigail. She gains Sarah’s and the queen’s trust, rises to chambermaid, and launches a bid to displace Sarah as the queen’s favorite by using such traditional methods as seduction of the powerful and poisoning of her enemies. Anne, naive, is an easy mark. Sarah is arrogant enough that it takes her a little too long to catch on to Abigail’s intentions. The queen enjoys Abigail’s flattery, her sexual attention, her willingness to dote on the royal pet rabbits. “I like it when she puts her tongue in me,” she tells Sarah, and seems to like Sarah’s furious expression, and her own new leverage, even better.

Yet The Favourite is surprisingly soft-hearted. At the center of this story of court treachery is a vision of long-standing romantic love and partnership, doomed though it may be. We are allowed to love Sarah Churchill—we can’t help it, really, with Weisz bringing emotional depth to the character’s perfect domineering aplomb. She can be affectionate with the queen, nursing her through terrible attacks of gout with tenderness, and she can be playful. The more Abigail climbs in status, the more Sarah rises in moral stature: her care for Anne is true and her years-long intimacy with the queen is held up against Abigail’s shallow seductions. We easily learn the underlying emotional grammar of her mordant verbal aggression, so that when, near the film’s pathetic end, she has been banished from the palace and begins a letter to Anne with “You cunt,” we know she means How can you have failed to distinguish between my devotion and Abigail’s mercenary flattery?, and when she continues with “I dreamed I stabbed you in the eye,” we hear, My love endures.

In his review in The New York Times A.O. Scott pointed out that The Favourite’s plot is essentially that of All About Eve. Abigail is a young upstart like Eve Harrington while Sarah is an imperious star like Margo Channing, at the height of her powers when the movie begins. The two of them head inexorably for a reversal. Yet Sarah and Abigail compete for the esteem of a female monarch rather than a male director, male writer, and male critic, as in All About Eve. The Favourite presents a world in which everything there is to want—not only love and sex but also power, status, and money—must be gained from a woman. Women do all the significant wanting and all the granting, too—they love, hate, and vie without reference to men.

The first version of the screenplay for The Favourite was written more than twenty years ago by Deborah Davis (she was joined later in the process by Tony McNamara). Davis, a former lawyer, was working as a freelance reporter focusing on the financial side of the film industry when she was electrified by an article she came across in her local paper mentioning the intimacy between Queen Anne and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. Davis, who did not know much about these figures, did some research and, as she told Deadline magazine, “stumbled on an extraordinary story of women in power, running the country from [their] royal bedchamber.” Davis had never written a script before, but she was convinced that this historical episode must become a movie. She studied screenwriting, worked on the story, and found a manager.

In its basic elements, what Davis discovered in her research was similar to what Sciamma found in her own: a historical scenario in which a small group of women had unusual autonomy. History discloses latent utopian plots to would-be (or accidental) utopian writers. A few women isn’t much, possibly not enough to fill out any utopian conceit in a novel or a multi-season TV show. But it is exactly right for the form of the feature film, which increasingly stands out as a comparatively brief yet singularly immersive experience of fiction. In the movie theater, giant women made of light overwhelm us. We are ready to receive the full suggestive power of their spectral authority.

It is of course their love affairs that make it work. Suppressed for decades by written and tacit codes of the film industry, the belated, explicit depiction of sexual affairs between women in feature films has the effect of finally closing a circuit: women can go all the way with each other. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Favourite, depicting sexual relationships between women is not only a matter of representing underrepresented desire; it also allows for fictional plots in which sex, love, money, and status circulate entirely among women.

Sex keeps everything moving, turning what might simply be a story about female characters into the depiction of a microcosm. Can we find a trace of utopia in The Favourite after all? If so, the essential unit of feminist utopia, as far as film is concerned, need only be a group of three female characters in a potentially infinite variety of situations and settings—not a fictional paradise, but a plenitude of fictional possibility.