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Essay: Portrait of a Lady on Fire and the Myth of the Muse and the Artist

By A. L. Sarino

When the portrayal of the artist and muse has been riddled with the male gaze, Portrait of a Lady on Fire blurs the lines of Marianne and Héloïse's roles in their own narrative.

A muse can be a mirror: a reflection of the artist's desires, anxieties, dreams and needs.

As the old saying goes, the eye is the window to the soul—after all, to perceive and to be perceived happen primarily with sight. Another popular quote, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, asserts that our greatest perception—beauty—is determined by the eyes themselves. But what do we truly know about perception? To truly look and be looked at?

The gaze, in theory, has been a point of discussion since the 40's, as questions of its meaning were brought to light. To Sarte (1943), it is the state of one's prevailing consciousness, while for Foucault (1975), the gaze is the illustration of socio-political power relations and their driving forces. While philosophers from this time period have touched upon the differing dynamics of the gaze between the sexes, Mulvey (1975) both coined and shed light on the overlooked mechanisms of the male gaze. In her article, she states that in a world shaped by the imbalance between gender dynamics, the privilege of looking is an active pursuit for men and a passive one for women.

An example of the male gaze is the depiction of the artist and muse in paintings of previous art periods, where the artist is portrayed to solely perceive the subject and the muse is solely to be perceived by the artist. There had been negligible discussion regarding the arrangement, with paintings rarely showing the same dynamic between individuals of the same gender, and this arrangement has led to the objectification of muses.

The traditional portrayal of women in art constricts them as passive objects, according to Kaufman (2005) in her essay Undoing the Patriarchy in Art, which can be seen in analyzing the relationship of Dora Maar as the muse and Pablo Picasso as the artist. This effect in the portrayal of muses is not harmless, as depictions of individuals and their identities in art can influence the way they are perceived in the real world. But what happens when both the painter and the subject are women? Can equality—one that is absent from conservative gender norms—be gained in such a dynamic?

Lady of a portrait on fire movie cover
Photo: Lilies Films, Arte, Hold Up Films, Pyramide Films

In director and screenwriter Céline Sciamma's film titled Potrait of a Lady on Fire, the portrayal of the gaze between the muse and the artist is blurred and explored, as opposed to upholding conservative power relations in the arrangement. The narrative opens in the present with Marianne, the artist, posing as a muse in a painting class—with the scene already a subversion of the dynamic. It goes back to the past when she sees an old painting, in a time when she traveled by boat to attend a portrait commission of an aristocrat woman, Héloïse, before she was to be married. In the beginning, Marianne is faced with the difficult task of attending to Héloïse's request not to be painted by rigid standards that dictate the portrayal of women in art.

After an argument about the first painting with Héloïse and Marianne's dissatisfaction with her own ability led to its destruction, wherein she smeared a rug on the subject's face and burns it during the night. This initial dynamic informs the audience that the artist is not solely in control of the process but instead listens to the muse's thoughts and opinions. After spending more time with Héloïse, Marianne perceives her better and the root of the other woman's wish to see her true self in the painting—to gain a sense of freedom amidst the looming marriage.

The boundaries between the characters' respective roles begin to fade as they go further into their relationship, particularly from a scene of one of their portrait sessions. Marianne points out Héloïse's mannerisms whenever she paints her, like how she bites her lip when embarrassed. At this point in the narrative, Marianne still upholds the belief of their differing roles of the artist and the muse, but Héloïse surprises her when she says that they are both in the same position.

After the vulnerable placement she was subjected to, Héloïse asks Marianne to go to her part of the room and points out her own mannerisms, stating that whenever the taller woman is troubled, she breathes from her mouth. Looking at the other woman's perspective, Marianne realizes one thing as Héloïse asks:

“If you look at me, who do I look at?”

-Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Marianne is the artist, but Héloïse perceives her just as much as she is perceived. The revelation troubles her because she is just as exposed, as naked, and as vulnerable as Héloïse is from her perspective. But as she spends more time with the other woman, she further understands that this reality is not as daunting as it previously seemed but rather a welcomed surprise. For Héloïse, the rebellion against the prospect of being painted without her voice in the matter adds insult to wound as she is to be married without her consent. To not be objectified in her own portrait and to be able to show her genuine self provides her a sense of control in a situation where she is not permitted to have.

In their article The romantic perversion of the Muse, O'brien (2020) concludes that artmaking should not be rooted in oppression and suffering but instead be built on healthy relations that perceive all individuals as equals. As Marianne acquires a better understanding of Héloïse's frustrations and statements, she also gains better insight that the role of the artist and the muse should not only be influenced by the current standards of their society but instead be an equal relationship between two individuals. That there is merit with being equal with Héloïse, as both of them are more than just their respective roles.

The film does not have an original soundtrack—instead, it lingers in its silence, preferring to show the audience the seemingly mundane moments of the characters' fleeting relationship. It paints desire not as loud as hearing but as loud as it is in the heart and mind. As they become more comfortable with the prospect of an equal relationship, not just as muse and artist, both Marianne and Héloïse are given a chance for reprieve from the imminent end of their time with each other.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire breaks the assumed roles of the muse and the artist, and with this, it portrays its narrative free from fetishization through the male gaze. The women may not be free to pursue love in the end, but they are free to recollect the memories as the past in the present—beyond that of the painter and the subject.


About the Author

A. L. Sarino is an emerging writer hailing from the Philippines. Aside from reading as a daily ritual, they take an interest in discussing prevailing social structures and injustices through literary film analysis. They study Creative Writing at the Philippine High School for the Arts and serve as a general editor at The Trailblazer Literary Magazine. 8Letters Publishing distributed their first book at the Manila International Book Fair in 2023. They can be found on Instagram at @a.l.sarino.


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