Identity, resistance, and doubled gazes in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) and The Handmaiden (2016)

Several fates befall paintings in 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire – defacement, distortion, conflagration. Early in the film, an abandoned painting is discovered by artist Marianne, who has travelled to an island off the Brittany coast. Here, she will pose as a lady’s companion while she secretly creates the wedding portrait of aristocratic Héloïse. This picture is being painted for the man she has been called home from the convent to marry, should he approve of her.

Settling into her workshop space, Marianne catches her own gaze in a mirror before spotting the back of a box canvas turned to the wall to hide its subject. A gasp is elicited from Marianne as she reveals the canvas and realises it has been defaced – or, more strictly, de-faced: everything above the neck has been completely wiped out by another artist who was so infuriated by Héloïse that he deserted his work and left the island. What does this mean? What sort of monster could Héloïse be?

A fictional painting in the vein of Dorian Gray’s picture, which was banished to an attic to hide the fact that the canvas had become a record of his every sin, this disfigured painting of Héloïse reveals to Marianne something of her model before the two have even met.

Héloïse, the eponymous Lady, is a difficult subject. When modelling for her portraits, she refuses to be merely a depicted object and instead demands more of the images created in her likeness. In chasing one portrait painter away and in repeatedly challenging Marianne (with whom Héloïse later forms a relationship), the young woman fights for her portraits to say something true of who she is. 

Unable to resist a marriage to which she does not consent, the demands Héloïse makes of her portraitists are not belligerent but instead represent an act of reclaiming what little independent ground she can: her projection of selfhood. When Héloïse critiques Marianne’s first completed portrait – “Is this how you see me?” – the artist responds that it is not only her, but the rules and conventions governing the art of their time and the circumstances that have led the two together. 

Héloïse makes clear that she wants to resist the visual language of art of their period. She is not Mrs Andrews, as in Thomas Gainsborough’s c.1750 portrait of a member of the landed gentry along with wife, dog, and extensive property, in which the silk-clad bride is painted as one of many possessions belonging to her new husband. Instead, Héloïse demands that her portrait says something of herself beyond her marketability as a bride, a possession worth investing in. 

Héloïse’s mother, La Comtesse, illustrates the circumstance her daughter works to resist. Recounting the memory of her own portrait arriving in her new husband’s house before she set foot through its door, La Comtesse tells Marianne of the sensation of being confronted with her own image – an image that doesn’t really belong to her. Like Anne of Cleves, she is expected to fulfil an fiction that isn’t reflective of who she truly is. Denied the right to self-presentation, La Comtesse is disempowered by this ersatz likeness. 

La Comtesse’s portrait has little to do with her real personality, but Héloïse, in her role as model, demands her humanity – to look at her portrait and see something of herself, something recognisably true. Like Dorian Gray, Héloïse hopes to project her soul onto canvas, but whereas the young man at the centre of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel hides his portrait as evidence of his corrupted, rotting nature, the Lady seeks that her paintings vocalise her true self. 

Héloïse is clearly putting up a fight before she forms a relationship with Marianne. In the early paintings (the defaced portrait left incomplete by the initial painter, and Marianne’s unsatisfying first attempt) Héloïse’s eyes – the windows to her soul – become warped, wiped, covered. 

However, it is in Héloïse and Marianne’s relationship that the Lady is truly able to find herself empowered as a creative being. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s writer and director Céline Sciamma has said that her film intends to dismiss the pervasive myth of the muse as inactive, passive, or disempowered. Instead, the subject of the painting looks back, talks back; the muse helps construct the image, works to project her selfhood to the artist, and is an active participant in the production of the picture. 

Much emphasis is placed on sight in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and the film uses the two women’s gazes to demonstrate the character of their relationship to each other. Upon their first meeting, Héloïse and Marianne stand together upon a cliff overlooking the turbulent sea. The camera captures the fleeting moments as their profiles turn from the seascape to each other, revealing the features of each other’s faces, showing the women looking at one another. As Marianne has been asked to paint Héloïse in secret, the painter’s snatched glances are initially meant to create enough visual memory for her to begin to create her portrait, but, jarringly, her subject keeps staring back.

Héloïse is characterised by her percipience, a skill which develops the couple’s relationship, and also affects Marianne’s practice. As muse, Héloïse challenges Marianne’s skills of artistic perception, demanding more of her eye as both artist and person. She asks questions, evades her portraitists’ gazes when she doesn’t want to be looked at, and draws attention to the fact that when the artist looks at her, she is looking back. This autonomy is not only apparent in Héloïse’s portraits, but during the abortion scene, in which the painter turns away from Sophie’s pained grimace but Héloïse encourages her to “look”. Marianne does, and later goes one further in asking Héloïse and Sophie to reconstruct the pose so she can paint the scene, bearing witness to and creating a record of this experience. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire repeatedly demonstrates that when Héloïse and Marianne look at each other, they are sharing a communal gaze. Throughout the film, the two women watch each other closely, communicating through their met looks, noticing each other’s mannerisms. The gaze they share is intellectualised, creative, female, Sapphic; it equalizes the couple, so that when each woman looks out, her eyes are met by those of her double. As counterpoints, their exchange of gaze is literalised when the couple rub an opiate into their skin and begin to trip: Héloïse blinks, and stares back at Marianne with the painter’s own dark eyes. 

Héloïse works to create portraits which serve as her doubles, revealing and reflecting her truth as an intelligent, self-governed woman. This is also true of her relationship to Marianne. The couple are doubled in their joint role within the process of artistic production: as they create the wedding portrait, Héloïse and Marianne find that their delineated roles as painter and subject begin to blur. A slippage of identity occurs between the women as they work together (“do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?”, asks Héloïse). This is clear in the moments in which Héloïse takes a dominant role as image creator, but also in the scene wherein Marianne playacts as her subject, donning Héloïse’s clothes as the artist struggles to create a likeness from memory alone. In a later scene, Marianne draws her body as a gift for Héloïse, sketching herself from a mirror positioned in Héloïse’s groin. The painter’s image is projected onto the body of her subject as Marianne again enacts the role of model. Looking at Héloïse, Marianne sees both pairs of eyes staring back. This doubled, equalizing gaze between Héloïse and Marianne enables the two women to learn something of themselves, and to improve, develop, and connect by viewing and being viewed by their counterpart. 

This slippage of identity and uncanny doubling was a key theme in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016) – based on Sarah Water’s 2002 novel Fingersmith – which follows the story of Hideko and Sookee, two young women whose lives are entwined together. The doubled narrative of The Handmaiden, in which the two female lovers repeatedly swap roles, is echoed visually throughout the film. Hideko and Sookee become doppelgangers as the film uses doubled shots of the two undressing, the camera repeatedly framing the couple as reflections; we see the two watch each other watch each other as gazes are caught in mirrors. Like Héloïse and Marianne, the couple are empowered by meeting their equal, their counterpart. 

Hideko and Sookee are also bound by the patriarchal constraints of the world they live in: Hideko, an erotic performer, is visually “sold” to men, just as Héloïse’s portrait is less creative expression than part of the transaction agreed by her parents with the arranged husband. Hideko and Sookee construct a staged swap that enables them to break free of patriarchal constraints, utilising their interchangeability in a doppelganger illusion to escape the men profiting from them and to start a new life together. 

Héloïse and Marianne are not so fortunate. The inexorability of their separation is symbolised by the theme of looking as a tragic, doomed act. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which a snatched glance sends the poet’s beloved back to the Underworld, haunts Héloïse and Marianne’s relationship. On several occasions, Marianne turns to see the spectre of Héloïse, ghostly in a white wedding dress – acts of looking which signify to the audience the impossibility of a happy ending for the two women. In one scene, Héloïse is hurt as she learns of Marianne’s true purpose on the island and realises she has misinterpreted the attention that the painter has been giving her during their time together: “that explains your looks”. What Héloïse initially understands as an emotional connection between the two women is actually part of the plan to marry her off – their shared looks are inescapably overshadowed by the patriarchal world they live in.

Their doubling may not enable them to fully escape the gendered economic circumstances of eighteenth century France, but both women are forever changed by their met gazes. For a film so preoccupied with sight and looking, it is interesting that it is a scene wherein perceptive Héloïse does not see that the audience understands how fully she has been altered by meeting Marianne. Years after the couple part, Marianne looks across a theatre to spot Héloïse, who has been moved to tears by a piece of music the painter first showed her. Héloïse may not catch Marianne’s gaze across the audience (in the final line of the film, the artist’s voiceover tells us “she didn’t see me”) but this is still a moment of connection between the two: in her overwhelming emotion and appreciation for the music, Héloïse demonstrates that she has been changed, enriched, by the couple’s time together. 

As artist and lover, Marianne is forever changed by her time with Héloïse. Set to inherit her father’s painting studio, Marianne can choose not to marry and wants Héloïse to resist her upcoming nuptials. In the face of this impossibility, however, the artist works with Héloïse to create an image that offers her some form of resistance. 

This manifests in the final wedding portrait, but also in a painting Marianne finds in a gallery years after their parting. This final portrait of Héloïse as wife and mother, painted by some other artist later in her life, might outwardly appear to fit the painterly conventions of her new role in life, but hidden beneath the labial folds of the book she is depicted holding, laying in her painted self’s lap, nestles the telling mark ‘P.28’, a private lover’s nod to Marianne. Finding this portrait reassures Marianne that Héloïse has clung to her sense of identity and autonomy, despite what has happened to her. 

In The Handmaiden and in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it is the united act of the production of the image – the doppelganger illusion, the wedding portrait – which offers some resistance to patriarchal influence. For Héloïse and Marianne, and for Hideko and Sookee, power, identity, and creative fulfilment are found in connecting with their double, in being able to see something true of themselves looking back from their reflection. Both couples, in meeting each other’s gaze, are given the chance to be who they truly are.

[This story was first published online on The Queerness website on July 14, 2020. The original story can be read here:]

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