Portrait of a Lady on Fire: Toward a Feminist Gaze

"When you're observing me, who do you think I'm observing?"

Héloïse needs her portrait taken—her mother demands it be taken before she's married off to a faceless suitor—but she doesn't want to be painted. This makes Marianne's job to paint her, obviously, somewhat complicated. But more interestingly, much deeper than staging this plot structure as a sort of "heist" wherein Marianne must "steal" a portrait of Héloïse by painting her while she's unaware of being painted, the film uses this conflict as a method for enunciating a feminist ethic of looking—not only in the realm of portraiture, but in the art of cinema itself.

The representation of women, whether on screen or on canvas, always necessarily risks an element of the objectification of its subject. Laura Mulvey theorized the concept of the male gaze in the 70's to explain the way in which much of cinema is structured around the visual consumption of female bodies, and we can see this idea just as clearly today.

To take a recent example, some critics of Birds of Prey claim that it can't be an emancipatory or empowering film for women because it continues to sexualize its female characters, while, on the other hand, there are some with audacity to criticize the movie for not sexualizing its characters enough. Whichever end of this spectrum you find yourself on, the objectification of women's bodies for a certain gaze is still a central concern for modern cinema.

And this is why Héloïse is so reticent to have her portrait taken. She doesn't want to pose at first because she doesn't want to be objectified—in this case, literally made into an object, a painting. This is why the turning point in the film comes around the midpoint of the narrative when Marianne shows Héloïse her (initial) portrait, and, in response to Héloïse's dissatisfaction, she destroys it.

After this point, Héloïse becomes willing to pose for Marianne—not (necessarily) because they've fallen in love already (although this is undeniably the beginning of their romance), but because Héloïse recognizes that Marianne is not interested in objectification for its own sake, but is instead genuinely interested in Héloïse as a human being. She recognizes in Marianne a similar ethic of looking, embodied in herself as her refusal to have her portrait taken. She's not merely being looked at, they're sharing together in a kind of mutual looking, a mutual regard.

"When you're observing me, who do you think I'm observing?"

To understand this distinction further, let's examine the difference between the initial painting of Héloïse, done by another painter before Marianne arrived, and the painting that gives the film its title, the portrait of a lady on fire. The initial portrait is of Héloïse without a face, sans visage, i.e. missing a crucial element; the final portrait is of Héloïse on fire, en feu, i.e. with an additional, nonsensical element. These two paintings together bring to the screen the distinction between Lacan's idea of the "gaze" (different from Mulvey's "male gaze") and Barthes's idea of the "punctum." As Jennifer Friedlander explains in her book Feminine Look:

The gaze, like the punctum, arises from eruptions of the Real, but whereas the punctum's uncanny quality emanates from the sense of the referent's concreteness, from its "overpresence," the gaze emerges as a vague, indeterminate, enigmatic blur in the viewers' visual field…. [T]he gaze and the punctum partake differently in Lacan's economy of "objects." Whereas the gaze is an instantiation of the most famous Lacanian object, the objet petit a, I contend that the punctum corresponds to the object that Lacan calls "the signifier of lack in the Other," which he denotes by S(Ø). (Friedlander, 53)

The first painting represents the Lacanian gaze because its lack of a face is precisely this kind of "vague, indeterminate, enigmatic blur," that attempts—and fails—to signify objet petit a, the object-cause of desire, the psychological projection of an unattainable person or thing that will satisfy the subject forever. This is why the previous painters failed: they wanted to do the impossible, to represent the unrepresentable, to achieve a kind of satisfaction that is structurally foreclosed. The gaze is a fantasy of woman as an embodiment of essential womanhood, and, as the failed portrait shows, it is an impossible, unattainable fantasy.

The final painting, the portrait of a lady on fire, represents Barthes's theory of the punctum because, in contrast, its "uncanny quality" arises precisely from an "overpresence" in the image; the fire is something concrete that is more than just a portrait of Héloïse, something that is in the image more than itself. As Friedlander describes, "The presence of this accidental detail gestures toward an aleatory meaning that overreaches the image" (53). What is the meaning of the contingent detail in the painting? Was the lady trying to kill herself? Or is the meaning something more metaphorical?

"I've dreamt of that for years."

What does this distinction matter, then? What is the purpose of the progression from the gaze to the punctum? What does it mean that Héloïse does not want to be painted as a signifier of the object-cause of desire, but is willing to be painted as a signifier of the lack in the Other? Here we return again to Friedlander:

I suggest a feminist approach to female spectatorship, one that, insofar as it takes seriously moments of enjoyment, derives from the feminine logic S(Ø), focuses on points of identification: seeking out eruptions of the Lacanian Real (as glimpsed through the punctum's disruption of meaning) and thus enticing viewers to take seriously the question of their desire. (66)

The eponymous portrait of a lady on fire "takes seriously moments of enjoyment" not in the sense of the enjoyment of looking at an object, the enjoyment of the gaze, but rather in the sense of enjoyment in identification, enjoyment in looking through another's gaze. The fire in the portrait is a kind of literal representation of Héloïse and Marianne's mutual enjoyment of each other—which is why Marianne is so shocked when her students put the portrait on display: it's as if they've put a pornographic image of her out for all the world to see, as if they've laid bare the truth of her private enjoyment.

This is where we return to the characters' motivations in the film and to Laura Mulvey and the movement toward a cinematic ethics of looking. Héloïse does not want her portrait taken at first because all the previous painters only saw her as an object of the gaze, as a signifier of objet petit a, the object-cause of desire. She became willing for Marianne to take her portrait, however, because Marianne showed that, to her, Héloïse was more than just an object, more than just a symbol of desire. She was a genuine point of identification—not a point to be looked at, but a perspective to be looked through, a "feminist approach to female spectatorship". This shared perspective, their shared regard, is precisely Friendlander's method of spectatorship that positions itself against the system of the gaze that has for so long been wielded against women.

"When you're observing me, who do you think I'm observing?"


Friedlander, Jennifer. Feminine Look: Sexuation, Spectatorship, Subversion. SUNY Press, 2008


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