Unconventional Space: Queering and Liberation of Spaces in Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Hold Me While I’m Naked
Hélöise and Marianne create a space of intimacy and belonging, however brief it is.
We often examine queerness, not in a vacuum, but by looking at how it interacts with and subverts the normative space in which it exists. In fact, queerness is almost universally defined in relation to a given society or community rather than on its own; the verb “queering” is about modification, of taking something and subverting norms in order to produce something uniquely “queer” (Fikes). For many queer communities, the act of queering is tantamount to survival: creating spaces of extreme acceptance, experimentation, and eccentricity precisely because those elements are systematically shunned elsewhere. In some contexts, confinement to queer, fleeting spaces is an occasion for mourning, such as the space of the basement studio in James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room. Yet within certain works of queer cinema — especially those works championed by queer auteurs — the creation of queer space plays a critical, positive role in the development of a relationship between its central characters. Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) and George Kuchar’s Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966) are two such films which show joyful depictions of queer space. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, both the ongoing conflict with creating a traditional matrimonial portrait and Marianne’s (Noémie Merlant) eventual decision to remember Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) through an unconventional portrait composition serve as a space for survival for the two’s relationship, extending their time together and creating hidden spaces to remember their affair. In Hold Me While I’m Naked, the two lovers’ inability to be captured in true intimacy while on set and their depiction of intimate lovemaking in the shower both express the fraught relationship between sexuality and mainstream Hollywood during the period of its release. In these two films, queering is not only an action that provides a space for survival, but for resilience and celebration, thus demonstrating queer ingenuity in cisheteronormative spaces and breaking away from predominant narratives of queer desire and queer love lost. While such celebrations are critical, we must also consider the question of who has access to such spaces of joy and celebration. By looking at representations of queer space across these three works, audiences are invited not only to see progress in queer liberation over time, but consider intersectional questions of who can access and find affirmation in them.
One of the most famous literary depictions of queer space fostering a relationship comes from James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room. A remarkable piece exploring queer desire and shame, made even more remarkable in considering the period in which it was released, the novel tells the story of an American expatriate, David, grappling with his sexuality while abroad in Paris, especially as he meets an Italian bartender, Giovanni. Apart from both the public eye and daunting cruising circles, David and Giovanni eventually develop a sexual relationship within the confines of Giovanni’s small basement apartment on the city’s outskirts. As their relationship develops, David reflects on the confinement of all their intimacy to the inside of Giovanni’s room: “I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea … in the beginning, our life together held a joy and amazement which was newborn every day. Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear” (Baldwin 75), he says. This lingering fear — compounded by David’s fiancée in the States visiting Paris, insecurity about Giovanni’s unabashed sexuality, and obvious social stigma — eventually results in David resolving to “escape” Giovanni’s room. Throughout the novel, Giovanni’s apartment indeed serves as a space for the development of the two’s relationship, but also reminds David of the confinement and shame associated with homosexuality, creating a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia that compels him to escape. Giovanni’s Room depicts a nuanced story of queer desire and shame — one both expected of its time period and remarkably evergreen — that shows queer space as marginal and fleeting. Yet while Giovanni’s Room treats queer spaces as occasions for mourning, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Hold Me While I’m Naked show capacities for joy and celebration in them.
During an interview with Cineaste magazine, Portrait director Celine Sciamma was asked about the choice to never depict the women of her film leaving the frame or speak in off-screen space, and whether that representation spoke towards the confinement of women, especially during that time period. “Yes,” Sciamma answered. “The frame allows us to look at something and also defines the world” (Garcia 10). Beyond composition, Sciamma’s answer also has narrative implications to the significance of the frame. Throughout Portrait, as Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship evolves, so does Marianne’s commissioned portrait. Unlike Marianne’s individual sketches of Héloïse, the commissioned portrait comes to serve as a physical reminder of the engagement Héloïse is confined to and, as such, it becomes something for the two to push back against. This conflict is demonstrated both in Héloïse’s rejection of the portrait’s first iteration and Marianne’s hesitancy in completing the final rendition. Yet despite the portrait’s association with heteronormative, patriarchal ideals, the medium itself is embraced and queered by both characters. Sometime following the affair, Marianne creates a painting of Héloïse, titled Portrait de la jeune fille en feu or Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Despite its title, the painting defies nearly all conventions of a portrait. Instead of being the sole subject, Héloïse is depicted amidst a vast, dark landscape, making up a relatively small portion of the painting’s space. In addition to being adorned in flames, Héloïse’s figure is also facing away, looking towards the landscape. Moreover, perhaps most significantly, the painting itself resembles a landscape painting in its composition and dimensions, flipping the notion of a portrait on its side.
Similarly, in her post-matrimonial portrait, Héloïse creates space for Marianne in the painting by holding her finger on page 28 of the book, paying tribute to the sketch Marianne made of herself in Héloïse’s copy of the Orpheus and Eurydice story. Even being ostensibly content in her marriage, Héloïse still chooses to queer the space of the painting with this hidden message, showing she remembers and relishes their brief affair. In both contexts, the two choose not to roundly reject the portrait for its connection to heterosexuality, marriage, and other forms of confinement, but find ways to queer the medium, creating space to remember and celebrate their time together.
Similar celebratory queering of space occurs in George Kuchar’s short film Hold Me While I’m Naked. This avant-garde short film creates an abstract, dreamlike setting through narrative and stylistic choices like Kuchar’s own role as a director within the film, the bizarre cuts and repetitions, and the clipped dialogue. As such, the film has taken on varied interpretations across audiences, but has been interpreted by critics as a mockery of Hollywood sensibilities. The short film begins with Kuchar’s character directing a sex scene between two characters, inexplicably trying to maximize the sexuality of Donna Kerness’ character by asking her to film topless while shrouding the act of sex between her and her partner by placing a stain-glass window in front of the camera. This could be a critique of Hollywood’s simultaneous obsession with upholding social mores around nudity and the expression of sexuality, yet still playing towards the male gaze to sell sex. Considering the religious associations of stain-glass windows, this could also be a commentary on the filtration and censorship of sexuality in films through the Hays Code and National Legion of Decency — a theory that bodes with Kuchar’s flippant views towards his Catholic upbringing: “I was a Catholic. I became a hedonistic sinner” (Jeppsen), Kuchar once said when asked about his religious background.
Whatever the significance, Kuchar’s character remains unsatisfied within the narrative of the film. He wraps for the day, before going home and seemingly dreaming about true intimacy between the two lovers he filmed. Whether an actual occurrence or a dream from Kuchar’s character, when Donna Kerness and Andrea Lunin’s characters have sex, it defies many conventions of traditional filmic portrayals. While many conventional sex scenes are darkly lit, heavily censor the body, and occur in a bed – such as the shot Kuchar’s character was filming –, this scene is brightly lit, unflinchingly shows female nudity, and, most significantly, occurs standing in a shower. Furthermore, the characters’ expressions are of joy and laughter rather than the traditionally lustful and passionate expressions often seen in mainstream cinema and, again, in the director’s sex scene. Though this scene depicts an ostensibly heterosexual couple, the idea of queering space still plays a major role; only in breaking away from the conventions and expectations of the camera were the lovers able to make an unabated, true expression of love and passion to each other. The notion of this scene as an act of queering is most obvious when we account for the context of the short film itself: the film was written by an openly gay director who roundly rejected both religious mores and Hollywood’s depiction of sexuality, released during the sexual revolution movement of the 1960s, and has since become a cornerstone of “camp” cinema.
Kuchar’s revolutionary love scene challenges stereotypical depictions of sex in film.
Though Giovanni’s Room, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Hold Me While I’m Naked are three works by openly queer auteurs about queering space, each imbue a different sense of autonomy. In exploring these three narratives and the backgrounds of the works and their authors, questions of privilege and power arise. The case of Giovanni’s Room, obviously, remains the most mournful and disempowering of the three narratives. The novel’s outlook on queer space as ultimately fleeting and confining almost certainly drew from Baldwin’s experiences as a gay, Black man in America during the 50s and 60s. “It is astonishing that in a country so devoted to the individual, so many people should be afraid to speak” (“American Lives: James Baldwin, ‘Lifting The Veil’”) Baldwin once remarked about the United States. Whether as a gay, black man in America, a black expatriate in Europe, or anywhere else in the world, Baldwin often noted the marginalization he and others like him faced, and didn’t find much reason to celebrate confinement. When critics lambasted Giovanni’s Room for its whiteness, Baldwin said it would have been impossible for American audiences to accept and engage with an intersectional representation of gay black men, saying “The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it” (Giles).
Kuchar, conversely, found people and spaces that affirmed him and his work. Working as a successful filmmaker and teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute during the 1970s — a city that’s long faced critiques of racism and exclusion within its gay circles — Kuchar always had confidence in his ability to find queer artistic spaces, and their ability to find him. “I find my audiences, and they find me. I like meeting them in dinky chambers behind store fronts … In San Francisco, they come out of the fog to see my stuff. In New York, they come out of the woodwork” Kuchar said in a faculty interview with SFAI in 1979 (“From the Archives: Kuchar on Kuchar”). Even if they were marginal and pushed to the sides of visible society, Kuchar as a white man felt confident in queer communities’ ability to find and create space, and his own space within them — a view that undoubtedly informed the joy expressed in marginal space in Hold Me While I’m Naked.
Sciamma’s portrayal of queer space finds itself somewhere between the two former narratives. While elements of loss and yearning are present at the end of Héloïse and Marianne’s affair, Héloïse encourages Marianne to embrace and relish in the fleeting time they had, rather than dwelling on the factors that ultimately drew them apart. The ending imbues audiences with an overwhelming sense of loss, yet also ponders the magnificence and brevity of the affair. This dichotomy is a reflection indubitably informed by Sciamma’s relationship with the film’s star Adèle Haenel, which ended prior to Sciamma’s creation of the film but evolved into a longstanding friendship that inspired its work (Miller).
By pondering these representations of queer space and the backgrounds of their respective auteurs together, audiences can only see not only progress in queer liberation throughout time in the increasingly joyful and complex representations, but also the intersectional questions about difficulties in finding liberating queer space across differences in race and gender. While the act of queering often originates in mere survival, it can also be about celebrating and relishing in spaces where queerness has been established. While Giovanni’s Room shows queer space as a confining space that provides fleeting joy and ultimately collapses, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Hold Me While I’m Naked both present markedly joyful reflections on the queer spaces established in the films, even as they’re also depicted as fleeting. By exploring these different narratives of queer space together, and in accounting for the background of their respective auteurs, audiences are prompted to consider questions of progress in queer liberation, as well as who has access to these spaces as they ostensibly become more accessible. These three narratives remind the viewer of the inherent joy bound up in creating queer spaces of love and liberation, but also draw them to reflect on who gets access to those spaces.
“American Lives: James Baldwin, ‘Lifting The Veil,’” NPR, August 19, 2010, https://www.np
Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. Vintage International, 2013.
Fikes, Edith. “Chusid, Segade, Warke Discuss Queer / Queering Spaces.” Cornell Chronicle,
“From the Archives: Kuchar on Kuchar,” San Francisco Art Institute Catalog, 1979-81, https:/
Garcia, Maria. “Deconstructing the Filmmaker’s Gaze: An Interview with Céline Sciamma.”
Cineaste no. Winter, 2019.
Giles, Matt, “James Baldwin and the Lost Giovanni’s Room Screenplay,” Longreads, Nov. 16,
Jeppsen, Travis, “The Pervert’s Diary: George Kuchar,” Mousse Magazine, October 13, 2018,
Miller, Julie, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire: The Real-Life Love Story Behind the Scorching
Film,” February 14, 2020, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/02/portrait-of-a-lady-o