Winner, Best Undergraduate Essay in Film Studies, 2020-21
The Portrait Looks Back: Revising Hitchcockian Tradition in Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Hëloise (Adèle Haenel) eyes the rolling waves in one of Sciamma’s painterly compositions
Upon first viewing, Céline Sciamma’s 2019 romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire may not register as a traditionally Hitchcockian film like those of Brian De Palma or David Fincher. Sciamma takes a more tender approach, using minimalism to craft a poignant story about forbidden love and the heartbreaking loss that inevitably follows. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is laced with subtle Hitchcockian accents that allow the film to stand on its own but aid in the cultivation of an atmospheric, deeply emotional experience. Sciamma not only references but revises traditional Hitchcockian vocabulary through her minimalist approach, encouraging the audience to contemplate the traditional conventions through which art is both created and perceived.
Set on the northwestern coast of France in the eighteenth century, the film revolves around the relationship between a painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and her subject, Hëloise (Adèle Haenel), a woman fated to be married to a wealthy Milanese man against her will. Marianne is initially commissioned to paint a portrait of Hëloise without her knowledge, since she refused to pose for the previous painter; yet a romance between the two slowly blossoms and Hëloise agrees to pose for Marianne. Their romance is tragically brief, as the patriarchal, heteronormative world in which they live forbids their relationship from continuing.
Discussions of Hitchcock’s legacy often center around his mastery of suspense. Richard Allen defines suspense as the “encourage[ment] to anticipate what happens next,” with narrative suspense adding a layer of anxious uncertainty to that anticipation (163). Romance films often use narrative suspense in the context of two potential lovers, leaving the viewers wondering when their romance may come to fruition. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma uses a form of narrative suspense to develop a complex mix of emotions surrounding Marianne and Hëloise’s relationship, forming an anticipation that is layered with poignant heartbreak.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a slow burn – for the majority of the film, the romance lies in nothing more than a gaze, a smile, or a brief moment of connection when Marianne plays the harpsichord with Hëloise at her side. Sciamma invokes Allen’s definition of suspense with a twist: the anxious anticipation exists within a timeframe, as the viewer knows the society in which the lovers live would never allow a relationship such as theirs to flourish. Sciamma layers the anxious anticipation of what happens next with a countdown, rooting the suspense not purely in what happens next, but rather in what happens before the dreaded moment we know will unfortunately arrive. The complexity of emotions at work leaves the audience caught between desperately wanting their romance to blossom and knowing that even when it does, it is fated to be short-lived.
Although Sciamma invokes suspense, the type of suspense she creates has a more delicate effect than that of a Hitchcockian thriller. In a typical Hitchcock film, the first kiss of the main couple often consists of the male lead aggressively pulling the female love interest into an extended, melodramatic embrace, usually accompanied by a sentimental orchestral score. Sciamma takes a different approach to this moment – it is not until almost three quarters of the way through the film that the two lovers first share a kiss, and even then, they do so with hesitancy. While both Hitchcock’s and Sciamma’s approaches result in the materialization of a romance, Sciamma’s approach layers the scene with timidity. The tentative, momentary kiss does not allow the viewer to relish in Marianne and Hëloise’s romance, but rather reminds us of the inevitable heartbreak that comes with a forbidden love.
In another nod to Hitchcock, Sciamma deftly and subtly employs the Female Gothic subgenre of the gothic literary tradition characterized by various narrative and architectural motifs. In this genre, a female protagonist arrives at a mysterious, sprawling manor of sorts and finds herself in a dangerous situation at the hands of the male of the household (Hanson 21). Hitchcock’s 1940 film Rebecca, an adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier novel of the same name, is perhaps Hitchcock’s most notable contribution to the Female Gothic genre. This film centers around an unnamed woman (Joan Fontaine) who marries a mysterious widower by the name of Max De Winter (Laurence Olivier), finding herself constantly haunted by the presence of his late wife, Rebecca.
Sciamma flirts with the female gothic in a number of ways, but the most apparent nod to the genre lies in Marianne’s arrival at the manor. Female Gothic works typically center around architecture, often a vast, cavernous castle of sorts to which the main female protagonist arrives under mysterious circumstances. Claire Kahane notes that in the Gothic tradition, the house is often marked as an “imprisoning structure,” one that contains a dark secret that the protagonist must uncover (quoted in Hanson 21). This is evident in Rebecca, as Rebecca’s ghostly presence throughout the house prompts the new Mrs. De Winter to uncover the dark truth about her husband’s previous marriage. The house at which Marianne arrives references gothic tradition, but with a more minimalist approach. The house is remarkably empty – unadorned, relatively unfurnished, far from a hospitable home. This references Kahane’s notion of the house as an imprisoning structure, a visual metaphor for the inescapable anguish Hëloise feels in her arranged marriage. The house functions as a prison in which she awaits her final incarceration, marriage. In addition to its architectural qualities, the prison-like aspect of the house is emphasized by its geographical location, as Marianne’s arrival by rickety boat suggests a Devil’s Island type of setting.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire also bears resemblance to Rebecca through the emphasis on the natural landscape. Rebecca opens with Max positioned at the edge of a cliff, overlooking a swirling, tumultuous sea below, suggesting that he may jump. His soon-to-be wife interjects, shouting a dramatic, “No! Stop!” Accompanied by a booming Franz Waxman orchestral score, Hitchcock uses the striking natural landscape to enhance the melodramatic effect of the scene. Sciamma opts for a more minimalist approach, allowing the environment to guide and intensify the emotions of the scene. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a remarkably quiet film, with only a few loud moments. Sciamma emphasizes subtler sounds, such as the creaking of a floorboard or the crackling of a fire. Instead of layering the film with a melodramatic score, Sciamma allows the sound of the environment to become a score of its own. The quiet atmosphere asks the viewer to play close attention to the small details, enveloping the audience in a more realistic world. The emphasis on realism elicits a stronger emotional response in the viewer, as the creaking of the floorboard makes the viewer feel as if they are walking right alongside Marianne, or tricks us into feeling the warmth of the fire. The more immersive the experience, the more realistic the emotions become.
The silence throughout the film allows the rare moments of exaggerated sound to have a more intense effect. At one moment, a weeping Marianne embraces Hëloise on the beach after a fight, filled with sorrow when she learns that Hëloise would be leaving the next day. Their dialogue is almost drowned out by the crashing of the waves, creating a visually and audibly exciting atmosphere that evokes feelings of passion just as a melodramatic score would. Sciamma uses the sound of the ocean to amplify the emotions of the scene, resulting in a poignant moment of heartbreaking anguish. The stark contrast between the silence of the majority of the film and the sparse moments of intense sound give these scenes a greater emotional weight, functioning as rare moments of emotional release. The emphasis on natural sounds as opposed to a Hitchcockian score invites the viewer into the world of the film more subtly, layering the sensory experience with emotion.
Female Gothic mode, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is haunted by a ghost from the future
Sciamma also subtly references Hitchcockian techniques by haunting the protagonist with a ghostly presence. In Rebecca, the new Mrs. De Winter finds herself haunted by Rebecca’s presence wherever she turns, notably through her grandiose portrait to which Mrs. De Winters constantly compares herself. At one point in the film, the new Mrs. De Winters becomes so threatened by Rebecca’s looming, ghostly presence that she has Rebecca’s gown in the portrait remade so that she may replicate her look. While Hitchcock’s emphasis on the ghostly typically involves a figure from someone’s past, Sciamma revises this tradition by introducing the idea of a haunting from the future. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Marianne is constantly haunted by visions of Hëloise in her wedding dress, a reminder of her looming engagement. Hëloise’s ghost does not represent a dark secret from Marianne’s past, but rather acts as a manifestation of her fear surrounding the impossibility of their being together.
Although Sciamma flips the idea of a haunting in reference the future of Marianne and Hëloise’s relationship, she still invokes ideas about past haunting through the emphasis on artwork. Near the end of the film, an indeterminate amount of time after their brief romance, Marianne stumbles upon a portrait of Hëloise and her young child at a salon. Here, the portrait has a similarly ghostly effect as that of Rebecca’s, though this one is laced with feelings of nostalgia and heartbreak as opposed to intimidation. Ela Bittencourt notes that the portrait functions as a “transmutation of life onto something else, an antidote to death,” as if the artwork itself invokes a type of ghostly immortality. Hëloise’s presence remains with Marianne, but only through memory. The role of the portrait in Sciamma’s film extends beyond the invocation of a past memory. In its ghostly presence, the concept of the portrait also acts as a representation of the male gaze. Coined by Laura Mulvey in her seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the male gaze refers to the way women are portrayed in cinema through a male heterosexual lens, a projection of male sexual desires (837). She notes that the skewed power dynamic of pleasure in looking revolves around an active male and a passive female, where the woman connotes a distinct “to-be-looked-at-ness” (837). She critiques Hitchcock’s Vertigo as a prime example of the male gaze in cinema, yet in a later work she notes that upon further reflection, Vertigo is a self-conscious study of the very concept of voyeurism and fetishism that she set out to analyze (43). This film centers around a former policeman, Scottie (James Stewart), and his infatuation with a woman named Madeline (Kim Novak). After Madeline’s tragic death that he was unable to prevent, Scottie meets a woman named Judy (also Kim Novak) who bears striking resemblance to Madeline. In an attempt to bring Madeline back to life, Scottie forces Judy to dress and wear her hair identically to Madeline in order to recreate his idea of the perfect woman.
In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma radically transforms the established look that operates in Vertigo, one that “oscillat[es] between voyeurism and fetishistic fascination” (841). Scottie’s forceful makeover of Judy to recreate Madeline’s appearance is not only an act of fetishistic fascination, but one of control, where Judy acts as the “ideal passive counterpart to Scottie’s active sadistic voyeurism” (842). Hitchcock primarily aligns the viewer with Scottie’s perspective, establishing a visual power dynamic and emphasizing the fetishistic and obsessive nature of his gaze upon Judy/Madeline. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma references the male gaze, but guides it through a type of transformation – resulting in a complete revision of the conventional male gaze in cinema.
At the beginning of the film, Marianne paints the portrait of Hëloise guided by the traditional conventions of portraiture that she was taught by her father. As painting was a male-dominated field, these conventions were guided by and geared towards the male gaze. The very reason Marianne is commissioned to paint Hëloise is to convince a man that Hëloise is beautiful enough to marry. Traditional portraiture invokes Mulvey’s description of the relationship between the active looker (in this case, the painter) and the passive “looked-at” (the subject). When attempting to paint using these conventions, Marianne fails to produce a portrait that genuinely sees Hëloise, as the skewed power dynamic of looker and looked-at does not allow for a genuine connection that can result in a true understanding of the subject. As Marianne and Hëloise become closer, the gaze morphs into a shared experience, one of mutual understanding and respect as opposed to an active viewer and passive subject. At one moment in the film, Hëloise asks of Marianne, “If you look at me, who do I look at?” The gaze has become a mechanism of equality rather than conquest, one through which the lovers can explore a type of relationship so foreign to them in such a patriarchal world. Through the creation of a shared gaze, Sciamma revises the Hitchcockian dynamic between Scottie and Judy, as if she is giving Judy the ability to look back at Scottie with equal power.
Sciamma further revises the traditional role of the male gaze in art by using it as a mechanism through which one not only views but also acknowledges and understands another’s experiences – especially the ones society deems shameful or forbidden. At one moment in the film, Marianne and Hëloise have returned home with the young housemaid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) after they accompanied her to receive an abortion. In a moment of connection between the three women, Hëloise suggests that Marianne paint a recreation of the procedure. The choice to paint a subject as taboo as abortion, especially during this time, is an act of defiance against traditional patriarchal conventions of art. As most artwork during this era was commissioned by wealthy patrons in order to display wealth and grandeur, the painting of a topic so far removed from typical displays of luxury and aristocracy acts as a rebellion against the traditional conventions of art that only cater toward the wealthy.
In addition to subverting traditional conventions of the time, the act of painting the abortion builds upon Sciamma’s revision of the male gaze in art. Similar to how Marianne eventually is able to truly see and understand Hëloise through the portrait, the painting of the abortion is a recognition and acknowledgement of Sophie’s experience. During the procedure of the abortion, Marianne turns away – but Hëloise tells her she must look. This look functions not an objectifying, fetishistic gaze, but rather one of respect. The act of painting a subject so vulnerable, so deeply human, fosters a deeper connection between the three women that extends out to the audience as well. Allowing the audience to be a part of a moment so personal does not result in discomfort, but rather creates a sense of intimacy between the audience and the characters within the film. The painting of the abortion acts as a recognition of not only Sophie’s experience, but also as an acknowledgement of the innumerable women throughout history that have been through the same experience.
Although their romance can be interpreted as a revision of the Scottie/Judy relationship, the equality with which Marianne and Hëloise gaze at each other can largely be attributed to their sexuality. A loving gaze between two women in a patriarchal, heteronormative world, especially one of this historical era, feels revolutionary. Most heterosexual romances, especially those found in Hitchcock’s films, involve some type of conquest – either a man actively seduces a woman, or the woman vies for a man’s affection. Due to the patriarchal society in which we live, a romance between a man and a woman will always be infused with a skewed power dynamic simply because of the way society treats different genders. Two women, however, experience a sense of equality that is completely unique to the lesbian experience. Sciamma emphasizes the shared respect between the two lovers notably during their first kiss, where they both must first pull down their own scarves before they share the kiss. As opposed to the previously mentioned dramatic Hitchcockian embrace, Sciamma builds an element of consent into their interaction. This mutual respect for one another embraces the women’s autonomy, emphasizing the equality with which the lovers view each other.
Although Hitchcock hinted at a potential lesbian relationship between Rebecca and the housemaid, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), he does so with subtlety because of rigid production codes that forbade the display of “sexual perversion” (Berenstein 18). The head of the Production Code Administration at the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Joseph Breen, expressed specific concerns regarding the way Mrs. Danvers talked about Rebecca, citing these moments as suggestions of a “perverted relationship” between the two women (Berenstein 18). Despite coding the relationship as lesbian, Hitchcock does so in a way that evokes the fetishistic aspects of the male gaze. During the scene in which Mrs. Danvers shows the new Mrs. De Winters Rebecca’s room, she points out the cabinet in which she keeps Rebecca’s underwear, and mentions moments in which she would watch Rebecca undress and take a bath. The infusion of Mrs. Danvers’ comments with erotic overtones paints Rebecca as a sexual object of fascination, calling into question the role that the male gaze plays in a coded lesbian relationship.
The time period in which Rebecca was created would never have allowed for a relationship such as Marianne and Hëloise’s to be shown on screen, so it would be a mistake to critique Hitchcock for not portraying the lesbian experience in the way Sciamma does. The depiction of Mrs. Danvers as cold and possessive was likely a reflection of the stereotypical older lesbian woman of this era, as portraying homosexuality in a positive light was strictly prohibited. Rather than approaching Hitchcock’s portrayal of homosexuality with critique, modern audiences can instead use it as a tool to provoke discussion regarding the societal progress that allowed for a film such as Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be created.
While the film evokes an intense emotional response, the sparse, subdued nature of Portrait of a Lady on Fire gives the viewer space to not only feel the emotions at hand, but also to process and reflect upon them in a more introspective manner. Through her minimalist revision of traditional Hitchcockian techniques, Sciamma guides Hitchcock’s legacy beyond the thriller and horror and into more delicate cinematic territory. Sciamma’s contribution to Hitchcockian vocabulary points to Hitchcock’s widespread influence across cinema, prompting discussion about the way traditional ideas about suspense and horror may be adapted to serve new purposes in varying genres. Sciamma’s modern adaptation of traditional techniques ushers in new ideas about how cinema can tell difficult but necessary stories, ones that leave viewers contemplating the impact of a film far beyond the theater.
Allen, Richard. “Hitchcock and Narrative Suspense.” Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson. Edited by Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey. Amsterdam University Press, 2003, pp. 163-183.
Berenstein, Rhona J. “Adaptation, Censorship, and Audiences of Questionable Type: Lesbian Sightings in ‘Rebecca’ (1940) and ‘The Uninvited’ (1944).” Cinema Journal, vol. 37, no. 3, 1998, pp. 16–37.
Bittencourt, Ela. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire: Daring to See.” The Criterion Collection, 23 June 2020, www.criterion.com/current/posts/6991-portrait-of-a-lady-on-fire-daring-to-see.
Hanson, Helen. “From Suspicion (1941) to Deceived (1991): Gothic Continuities, Feminism and Postfeminism in the Neo-Gothic Film.” Gothic Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 2007, pp. 20-32.
Mulvey, Laura. “Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo.” Afterimages: On Cinema, Women, and Changing Times. Reaktion, 2020, pp. 40-56.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 833-844.