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The Radical Lesbian Gaze of Céline Sciamma

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There isn't enough critical work around the lesbian gaze, but when there is, Céline Sciamma will have helped to define it.

 
 Like her debut, Water LiliesPortrait of a Lady on Fire is an explicitly queer film. Incidentally, both star Sciamma's ex-girlfriend, French actress Adèle Haenel, who the writer-director imagined the role for, wanting to collaborate again with her ex-lover, now friend. That kind of friends-with-your-ex relationship is a lesbian-specific dynamic that Sciamma brought up when I interviewed her for another publication around awards season in early 2020. We were at the Four Seasons restaurant in Beverly Hills, sitting outside so she could smoke cigarettes with her coffee, and I asked her about happy endings — specifically, the idea that the romance of Portraitis a flashback for painter Marianne. It’s a memory of her brief but heart-opening time spent with Heloise and the art she's created in her honor.
 

"I wanted to depart from this idea that a happy ending is eternal possession of somebody," Sciamma told me. "Lesbian imaginaries should be more subverted. I mean, they are!" She laughed. "Even in life, there's friendship with your exes for instance? This is lesbian imaginary. So this whole thing about a happy ending is a wedding? I don't agree with that. To me, it's not the case."

 

Subverting heteronormativity is part of Sciamma's work, even if her subjects aren't always lesbian themselves. In all four of her films over the last 13 years, the 41-year-old French writer-director brings viewers inside the private spaces of outsiders as active participants, as opposed to Hitchcockian voyeurs. She started with Water Lilies in 2007, taking us into the psyche of a preteen who becomes infatuated with the captain of her school's synchronized swim team. Sciamma followed four years later with Tomboy, a pre-transgender tipping point meditation on the simultaneous anxiety and freedom a 10-year-old assigned female at birth experiences after making friends under the guise she's a boy. Girlhood, released in 2014, was the story of a Black suburban teenage girl and the gang of disenfranchised women who showed her how to access her inner strength (with a particularly poignant scene set to Rihanna's "Diamonds").

In Portrait, the reality of a world seeking to keep women isolated and in line with social and familial expectations isn't given any weight, and neither are men.

That work culminated in last year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a dynamic period piece in which a woman painter recalls the slow-burning passion of a heart-opening, primordial romance with her muse. It was a breakthrough that received rave reviews for its style and performances and awards for its screenplay and cinematography.

The late lesbian theorist and social researcher Tamsin Wilton once wrote: “As a lesbian sitting in a cinema, I bring personal and social narratives of oppression — both material and ideological — along with me." As a publicly identified lesbian, Sciamma's work unabashedly operates from a similar place, validating the way women see and experience being seen by another woman. The lesbian gaze is not necessarily of a sexual nature, as Sciamma's work illustrates in scenes of sibling bonding (Tomboy), interrgenerational underground abortions (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), and female friendships that turn into chosen family (Girlhood). In this way, Sciamma shares a tradition with pioneers like Barbara Hammer (Dyketactics) and Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman), whose distinctly lesbian approach to filmmaking celebrates and interrogates women's relationships through a distinctly queer, feminist lens.

In the past, other queer female directors like Chantal Akerman (Je tu il elle) have attempted to distance themselves from sexualized or gendered identifications, or, as in the case of Lisa Cholodenko, offer send-ups of lesbians for mainstream consumption while marketing such films as The Kids are All Right as "universal." But more often than not, men have been at the helm of bigger budget lesbian-themed films (CarolFreeheld, The Handmaiden), offering their perspective on lesbian bodies, identities, and relationships as if their point of view is neutral. This has led to frequent missteps, disastrous plot points, and pornographic sex scenes in a canon of lesbian and bisexual vampires, traitors, and murderers, as opposed to the richness of the reality of womanhood as told by women, as well as poor treatment of women on set. Director Abdellatif Kechiche's poor treatment of the actresses on set of Blue is the Warmest Color was apparently particularly egregious during shooting of the film's controversial, corporeal six-minute sex scene.

In their 2006 talk about the female gaze at the Toronto International Film Festival, nonbinary Transparent creator Jill Soloway used The Love Boat as an example of how the male gaze is shot: "[It's] like tits, bikini, bar, piña colada, piña colada, it's the waitresses's tits. She walks, walks, walks and sets the piña coladas on the table and scene begins." The female gaze, as Soloway suggested, isn't flipping the script so women get a sexy fireman calendar, the Chippendales, or a big gun in an action movie. Instead, they argue the female gaze is feeling seen in a way that the female subject can be empathized with — a heroine's journey like Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank or other female-directed coming-of-age films, a genre which is, coincidentally, Sciamma's favorite to explore.

Because lesbians are still a small fraction of a potential audience, the female gaze is still primarily experienced as straight — a safer, less subversive way to approach modern womanhood that doesn't alienate men altogether. Sciamma's work avoids both that alienation and the tropey traps of hypersexualizing or desexualizing queer characters. She doesn't punish her characters for their desires; she allows them to explore them with curiosity as opposed to shame. Sciamma is a realist, but also, an optimist.

Sciamma is not a traditional filmmaker, and whether her subject identifies as queer or not doesn't take away the way that she, as a lesbian, experiences and makes sense of humanity. She tells stories of experiences through characters who best embody her ideals, and non-lesbians can and should enjoy her films just the same.

In a lecture for the https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7F9k-340fc"}" href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7F9k-340fc" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" style="box-sizing: border-box; background-color: transparent; cursor: pointer; color: rgb(34, 34, 34); transition: color 0.2s ease; line-height: inherit; text-decoration: none;">British Academy Film Awards earlier this year, Sciamma said she let Marianne and Heloise's desires dictate every detail of Portrait, all of which are palpable enough for any viewer to experience sensually in every single scene of the finished product. There’s the lingering close-ups on each woman's eyes, necks, and earlobes; the tearing off of their face masks for a passionate first kiss; and the literal way in which Marianne captures Heloise as she sees her in the titular portrait, through a lesbian gaze of desire. Any art we see or hear (the film has no score and no music, save for very pointed moments) is a part of the love story.

In Portrait, the reality of a world seeking to keep women isolated and in line with social and familial expectations isn't given any weight, and neither are men. Marianne is meant to paint Heloise's portrait for her betrothed husband's approval, but he is invisible for the time the two spend together. When they are with anyone else at all, it's other women: Heloise's mother; Sophie, a maid; and the local secret society of women who converge at a bonfire where Heloise's dress catches fire. The latter is a rare musical moment in Portrait, the women singing in chorus to Heloise's delight. She's so enthralled with Marianne, whom she stares at across the flames, that she doesn't notice her dress has caught fire. Marianne gazes back at Heloise and soon, the image will become her own painting of the memory. The resulting artwork is a portrait of the artist seeing her muse but also the muse seeing her artist — an equal exchange of desires. There's no struggle in their dynamic or their fate, and so their desire takes the place of conflict in a traditional love story such as this one.

 

But Sciamma is not a traditional filmmaker, and whether her subject identifies as queer or not doesn't take away the way that she, as a lesbian, experiences and makes sense of humanity. She tells stories of experiences through characters who best embody her ideals, and non-lesbians can and should enjoy her films just the same. In 2020, it would finally seem they are, at a time when the lesbian gaze is still pushing to permeate popular culture; queer filmmakers like Nisha Ganatra, Dee Rees, Angela Robinson, Jamie Babbit, Alice Wu, and Desiree Akhavan are creating work from their respective intersecting identities and experiences, not in spite of them.

Lesbians are often defined so solely by their sexual identity that it's no surprise Sciamma and her contemporaries aren't yet a household name. By her own admission, she can be off-putting for gatekeepers in France: Sciamma and Hanael made headlines for walking out of this year's Cesar Awards in protest of Roman Polanski's win for Best Director, and she finds no need to promote her films by promising the predetermined status quo, a "universality" that lesbian filmmakers have had to defend in order to be funded or get distribution, much less find traction outside of festivals. Yet Sciamma is not as concerned with ghettoization as her ancestors or contemporaries have been or had to be, just as Heloise and Marianne are not focused on the future. Heloise's mother will return, Marianne will leave, Heloise will be married, and they will no longer be together, but their love is and was possible. For a moment, they were seen.

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