By Gwendolyn Smith
Film and television makers have never been shy about the female form. Hollywood always valiantly ensures audiences know what its leading ladies look like in underwear, and often without, while television heaves with the bosoms of pretty ingénues in period drama. Alas, anyone with a brain will know these portrayals are far from representative of how women look and act in real life. Tired of the disconnect? Good news: today’s hottest screen hits are proving that you can discuss women’s bodies honestly, and without sexualizing them, too.
Take Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the scorching period drama from the French film-maker Céline Sciamma released on 21 February. Having already generated a buzz, and plenty of awards, in France, adoring reviews suggest that it’s set to do the same here. Sciamma won praise for her depiction of young women’s sexuality in 2014’s Girlhood – a punchy snapshot of teenage life in the Parisian banlieues. Now she has turned her hand to a tale of lesbian passion in 18th-century Brittany.
The film follows a painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who must complete a portrait of a young noblewoman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), in secret: Héloïse has previously refused to pose for portraits in an act of rebellion against her forthcoming arranged marriage.
The “female gaze” is a term used in recent years to describe art that subverts the ubiquitous male perspective. Like many buzzwords, it is often misapplied – but not so in the case of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which is unmistakably made from a female vantage point and with a feminist sensibility. Indeed, its plot is a meta-commentary on that fact: in order to paint Héloïse secretly, Marianne has to memorize her features while posing as her walking companion – cue a slew of scenes involving a woman looking at another woman. Crucially, Héloïse soon returns Marianne’s glances.
Their relationship provides a blueprint for what the female gaze should do in film-making, says Ginette Vincendeau, a professor of film studies at King’s College London. While warning that it’s simplistic to assume films by women will automatically be feminist, she says that Sciamma’s picture contains a good example of “the reciprocity of the female gaze” – or how it can counter the imbalance that is thought to corrupt the male gaze. “There’s more of equal power relation between the person depicted and the person depicting, which is to me a feminist gesture,” she says.
Héloïse and Marianne eventually work together on the portrait, a collaboration that Sciamma has said mirrors the film’s creative process. She and Haenel were until recently a couple; in an interview last week she insisted that the fictional dialogue between artist and subject reflects their “intellectual relationship” in real life.
So the film’s subject matter means it’s inevitably concerned with appearances. But it also offers a welcome study of the less superficial aspects of women’s bodies. At one point, Marianne wakes up in the night with agonizing period pain. Meanwhile, a subplot involves Héloïse’s maid, Sophie, who is pregnant but does not want to be. In one of the film’s most transfixing scenes, a local woman reaches up between Sophie’s legs to perform an abortion. As Vincendeau points out, these are heavily aestheticized portrayals rather than strictly “honest” ones, but nonetheless it’s refreshing to see women’s health (hardly a Hollywood trope) discussed on the big screen.
Of course – spoiler alert – there’s Héloïse and Marianne’s love-making, too. The film manages to capture their red-hot desire without requiring, say, the controversial full-frontal sex scene that takes up an outsized portion of Blue Is the Warmest Colour, Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 film about a tempestuous lesbian romance. In focussing on the emotional build-up rather than the sex itself, Sciamma eroticizes the character’s feelings rather than her actors’ bodies.
Sciamma has said this approach perplexed her home country. “In France, they don’t find the film hot,” she told the Guardian. “[They think] it lacks flesh, it’s not erotic … They don’t even know that the ‘male gaze’ exists. You can tell it’s a country where there’s a lot of sexism and a strong culture of patriarchy.” Nevertheless, the film’s 10 nominations for the Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscars, suggest its subtlety isn’t lost on everyone.
Speaking of awards, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag also earned gongs for a TV show that offered a spiky, poignant take on women’s physical experiences. One of its most talked-about sequences came when Fleabag’s sister miscarries in a restaurant toilet cubicle. Back at the table, her relatives are sniping their way through an engagement dinner. Waller-Bridge shows a private moment of pain escalating into a public episode of family warfare (it somehow ends in a punch-up). If it’s rare to see baby loss on screen, it’s practically unheard of to see such an idiosyncratic, blackly comic depiction.
It may be on stage rather than screen, but Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin, currently running at the National Theatre, also applies mordant humor to the anguishes and indignities of reproductive life. It’s a grim tale at first glance: a young woman, Sally Poppy, will hang for murder unless she can convince a 12-strong jury of women that she’s pregnant. But it grants the women deciding her fate temporary liberty of sorts: in the courthouse, they’re untethered from both domestic chores and male authority. Soon, they’re cracking jokes about hot flushes and bad sex.
Writing about the play for The Stage, the critic Kate Maltby observed that “throughout, we hear more about the sticky details of women’s bodies than I’ve ever heard on a major theatre stage”.
Like Portrait of a Woman on Fire, while the play hinges on women’s bodies, it doesn’t show too much of them. “Thank God The Welkin avoids the trap of offering [Ria] Zmitrowicz up for our gaze,” continues Maltby, before calling for more plays “about the ways women talk about our bodies; not how men observe them”.
And this is precisely the power of the female gaze. At its best, it portrays the full gamut of women’s lives rather than focusing on the 0.001% of the time when this involves being sexy and naked.
After all, the best depictions of women’s bodies are not really about bodies at all, but the experiences and emotions attached to them. To put it another way, they paint women as they are: thinking humans who are as capable of scrutinizing the world as the world is of scrutinizing them. Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Héloïse knows the score. “If you look at me, who do I look at?” she asks Marianne during a sitting, in a sly question that’s really more of a statement.
The film-making old guard are happy to show the female form, but less keen on acknowledging the life that comes with it. Thank goodness for the new wave of creatives making such ignorance impossible.