Haunted Paintings

The Female Ghost in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

by CJ Gan

Illustration by CJ Gan

published March 13, 2020


The vocabulary of film discourse contains a rather reductive palette of praise, one critics love to slather on every striking work that emerges. A selection from reviews of Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is revealing: “A hauntingly intimate vision of love.” “A haunting, erotic, and evocative period piece.” “Hauntingly beautiful.” It’s a strange turn of phrase. 

The question to ask of a ‘haunting film’ is—who is being haunted? And who is the one haunting? For when we speak of haunting, we evoke the figure of the ghost, the specter of the dead, or, put another way, the presence of an absence—something gone but not quite disappeared that lingers on. 


Portrait is set in eighteenth century France, on a remote, quiet island off the coast of Brittany. Marianne (Noémie Merlant), an artist, is tasked with the job of painting a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young aristocratic woman, which must first be sent to her suitor in Milan for his approval before their marriage can proceed. This affair is arranged by her mother, the Countess (Valeria Golino), but Héloïse is reluctant to give up her freedom and marry a man she does not know, and so refuses to sit for her portrait; when Marianne arrives, she has already exhausted th efforts of a previous painter. Marianne must thus pretend to be her companion for walks while secretly observing her for the painting. 

After establishing this premise, the film breathlessly unravels. The two of them are inexorably drawn to one another; when the subterfuge is inevitably revealed, Héloïse coldly criticizes the portrait and Marianne tearfully grabs a cloth and smears the still-wet paint, destroying the face. However, upon seeing the ruined portrait, Héloïse abruptly changes her mind and agrees to pose for a second portrait. The Countess must leave for the coast of Brittany, and in the absence of her controlling presence, Marianne and Héloïse’s attraction grows—but when the painting is finished and the Countess returns, Marianne must leave. 

They will never meet again, yet they see each other everywhere. 

This is not a spoiler; the events of the film unfold without surprises or twists, almost foregoing a conclusion. In this film, it is not what happens inasmuch as how it happens, not what is shown but how it is shown—and how it is not shown—that captivates.

There is an invisible thing in this film that reveals itself without being shown; that is unspoken and yet ever-present. Marianne and Héloïse’s queerness is never explicitly discussed, never once drawn to our attention as something special or extraordinary. There is never even a mention of them loving one another, an almost necessary cliché of heterosexual romantic stories—though there is a more general discussion of love, it refers only to heterosexual relationships. There are no words for what they have in a linguistic discourse in which only heterosexual relationships are condoned. Moreover, there is no need for any word for it; it resists the very act of being named. Because to name it would be to mark it as different, as an object upon which meaning can be inscribed, something that must be explained, made sense of, contained. There are no words for this haunting presence. It merely is.

Throughout the course of their romance, Marianne is literally haunted by the vision of Héloïse—a pale, glowing form clothed in white, foreshadowing the agonizing moment of her departure. This surreal interjection in the film is complicated by the temporal framework of the entire film, which unfolds as a flashback in present-day Marianne’s mind. Perhaps this ghostly apparition is Marianne’s knowledge of what will haunt and taint her memories of what came before. Or perhaps it is truly something seen by Marianne in the past, the premonitory omen of a fate she knows is inescapable.

Perhaps their romance cannot last—but that does not mean that it dies. It lingers, even if unseen to all but them. That is the imperative that they lay down to one another: Remember. Do not forget. Black queer feminist Sharon Holland once said that “Bringing back the dead…is the ultimate queer act.” The erasure that society enacts upon non-normative sexualities relegates them to invisibility and non-being. To cling onto haunted memories is to allow that which society condemns to death to live on.

Earlier in the film, Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie discuss the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice—how in turning to look back at her on the trek out of hell, Orpheus chooses to sacrifice his future with his wife to preserve one final perfect memory of her. Héloïse, in a flash of insight, says, “Perhaps she was the one who said, ‘Turn around.’” So as Marianne flees from the house, unable to bear what she must do, Héloïse, as Eurydice, commands Marianne to turn back. Sciamma resists the temptation to enact a wish-fulfilment fantasy of queer relations persevering and blossoming against all odds, just as Orpheus ultimately cannot save his lover from hell. But she also denies the tired trope of queer love as a fatalistic tragedy. She rethinks the binary of queer narratives and posits a new way that love can live beyond its death.

Heeding Héloïse’s command, Marianne looks at her one final time. As their relationship dies, a ghost is born. 


But the figure of ghost is not only a vessel for marginalized identities to speak against erasure and non-being. Power haunts as well, and its ghost does not stay silent forever. It lurks in the shadows, biding its time, only to suddenly, shockingly, lunge into vision, when Marianne wakes up after her last night with Héloïse, walks into the kitchen, and sees a man sitting there. At this moment, you realize that since the fourth minute of the film, for almost the entire runtime, you haven’t seen or heard a single man. It is a chilling moment in which the world that the two women have built for themselves abruptly crumbles. The man in the kitchen is tantamount to a ghost appearing in a horror film—as Sciamma herself put it in an interview with Vox; the “jump scare of patriarchy.” 

Even though we only see this patriarchal ghost near the end of the film, it’s evident that it has been haunting this place for a long time. It was waiting for the Countess when she first arrived on the island decades ago. She grew up in Milan; her parents arranged her to be wed to a nobleman living on the island, and sent her portrait ahead to be vetted by her husbnd-to-be. Stepping into the house for the first time, she looked above the fireplace and saw the portrait staring down at her. “She was waiting for me,” the Countess tells Marianne. The haunting gaze of this marital portrait is reincarnated in the portrait that Marianne must paint of Héloïse. Both are intended not for the sitter but for a ghostly presence who controls the image without being there: a man who appraises the woman and judges if she is beautiful enough to marry. 

The gaze inhabits Marianne too. The Countess’ marital portrait was painted by Marianne’s father; she inherits not only his trade as a painter but also the male gaze inherent within his art. Thus, when Marianne first attempts Héloïse’s portrait, the image is lifeless: her face plastered with a faint, sickly smile so cold and 

Marianne’s confession that she has been painting Héloïse all along, Héloïse scrutinizes the portrait and cannot recognize herself. “Is that how you see me?” she asks. Marianne stutters, “It’s not only me… There are rules, conventions, and ideas.” It is not only Marianne who is acting here; there is another hand that haunts her brush, a ghostly hand formed by these “conventions” of how art has configured the image of a woman: demure and yielding to the invisibly present male looker. The male gaze, Sciamma shows us, is a spirit that transcends the eyes of men; women, too, can be possessed by it. 


The presence of the male gaze in the film isn’t remarkable. After all, the male gaze is everywhere; it pervades and infiltrates everything produced within a patriarchal system of meaning. What is remarkable is that the film boldly exorcizes the male gaze halfway through. The Countess—the matriarchal figure who imposes traditional order upon the household— departs, and in her place, another ghost emerges. 

At first, it is subtle. The dynamics in the house shift between the three women: Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), the maid. The silent distances between them vanish as the three begin to play cards together, read stories together. Most powerfully, in one scene, Sophie embroiders fabric at the kitchen table while Marianne and Héloïse cook for her. This scene reuses the same shot composition—head-on, wide— used earlier in the film to depict Sophie serving food to Marianne. The visual continuity between both scenes is contrasted against the role reversal of servant and artist in the later scene. Sophie’s practice of a female folk craft is now implicitly elevated to the status of art that is traditionally reserved for lofty mediums like painting. 

In the first half of the film, Sophie only ever appears to serve Marianne or provide expository dialogue before she vanishes like a ghost. But after revealing her unwanted pregnancy to Marianne, Sophie’s efforts to abort her pregnancy become a prominent focus of the film’s plot. The film emphasizes the paradox of abortion as a vital health procedure and the absurdly arduous, secretive methods of obtaining one. Later, as Sophie undergoes the agonizing process, Marianne, unable to bear the sight, averts her gaze, only for Héloïse to command her fervently: “Look.” That night, Héloïse re-enacts the abortion scene in their home. She poses as the doctor, kneeling by Sophie’s feet while she commands Marianne to paint. To bear witness to the plight of women that the male gaze refuses to see, to immortalize a ghost in art, is the urgently necessary mission that Héloïse confers upon Marianne, that Sciamma does herself by making this film. 

It is significant that Sophie is a working-class woman—the discovery of her pregnancy would cost her her job as a maid in an upper-class household. Sophie is thus forced to wait until the Countess leaves to finally deal with her abortion. If issues of the suppressed female body affect working-class women the most, it is fitting that the solution comes not from the lofty male-dominated institutional realms of medicine but rather the folk practices of village women on the island. These women do not conform to the academic, scholarly qualifications policing the profession in this historical moment, during the height of the Enlightenment, but the embodied wisdom and experience of their diagnosing eyes and healing hands has been forged through necessity over centuries: the need to survive, to see and treat the female body that is not acknowledged, let alone cared for, by the rest of society. 

When Sophie brings Marianne and Héloïse to a feast held by these village women to consult a doctor on her abortion, something magical happens. The women gather around a fire and begin to sing—nothing but their voices and the clapping of their hands. A crescendo builds slowly on surreal, eerie harmonies that layer over one another, and bursts into a series of polyrhythmic chants and calls. It has the air of a mystical, tribalistic ritual; Sciamma deliberately constructed the scene to “convoke the imagery around witches.” For what is a witch but a ghostly, abject woman, one whose strange feminine magics—like their herbal medicinal brews or psychedelic drugs— are deemed abnormal and deviant by society? These witch-women might be deemed abject by patriarchal discourse, or relegated to the margins of society, but they live fiercely and with fire. They love, they celebrate and make music: all things that have been stifled for Héloïse in her aristocratic upbringing. 

Earlier in the film, when Héloïse is first allowed out of the house, she sprints toward the cliffs and the sea. “I’ve dreamt of that for years.” “Dying?” Marianne asks. “Running,” Héloïse pants, with a hint of a smile. Later, lying with Marianne, she takes out a drug that she bought from a woman at the feast. “She said it can make you fly,” she says to Marianne, with a glint of magic in her eyes. 

In the face of subjugation and oppression, the village women do not accept invisibility and death as their only fate. Instead, they imagine a new kind of life—not a special one but an insistently everyday existence—that lies beyond the purview and censure of the male gaze. They rebirth themselves in an after-life as witches and ghosts, beings who are free, who do not merely dream of running, but instead learn to fly. 



In cinema, there are “rules, conventions, and ideas…” that tell you how to see, and what you can see. For example, there is the eyeline match. It is a sequence of two shots: first, you see someone gazing at something, then you cut to what they are looking at. This simple structure allows the viewer to enter into the gaze of the looker and identify with them, and conversely, to objectify what is looked upon. Conventionally, the subjective camera is gendered male, as it looks upon a female object—and through the act of looking, imposes meaning upon her. The male gaze does not merely exist on-screen; the male gaze is the screen. 

So what lurks beyond the edges of the screen? 

Sciamma overturns these conventions in the opening shots of the film. Slashes of charcoal are drawn on blank canvases, but Sciamma cuts away before a figure ever coalesces. Then we see the lookers—young female artists-in-training drawing an unseen woman. But she does not cut to the reverse shot—instead, she cuts to shots of other artists looking at a still invisible figure. And then we hear the woman command us on how to look at her: “Not too fast… Take time to look at me. See how my arms are placed.” The object of the gaze takes control of the camera, refusing to yield to our interpretation without speaking for herself. 

This subversion of the subjective camera is evident in the initial dynamic between Marianne and Héloïse. Marianne tries to impose the conventions of portraiture on Héloïse by trying to wrest her image from her, but Héloïse resists, refusing to pliantly be examined and dissected, confronting Marianne’s gaze by looking back at her. This negotiation of the mutual gaze manifests in a camera that frequently swivels and moves between the perspectives of Marianne and Héloïse, as the relationship of subject and object is constantly reversed. 

In a particularly vivid instance, Héloïse and Marianne go out walking by the cliffs for the second time, their mouths wrapped in scarves. The entire sequence is shot in one long take without dialogue, lasting 45 seconds. Framed in extreme close-ups which allow us to see only one person’s face in frame, this shot is composed entirely of a tense exchange of gazes. The camera begins on Marianne, who gazes off-screen at Héloïse from the back, attempting to make out her features. As if following the path of her gaze, the camera pans over to the back of Héloïse’s head, assuming Marianne’s gaze. But in a subtle, barely noticeable sideways motion, the camera then exits Marianne’s gaze, framing Héloïse from the side as she turns to look back at Marianne, so that she now controls the gaze. Finally, the camera pivots behind Héloïse to fully enter Marianne’s subjective point-of-view. Just as it seems that Marianne has resumed power over the gaze, however, Héloïse abruptly turns to look back at Marianne, and in so doing gazes directly into the camera. 

When characters stare into the camera, they break the fourth wall and confront their audience. In this scene, Sciamma forces us to become self-aware of the thoughtless objectification we engage in when we watch cinema as an unseen, invisible voyeur, lurking behind the screen and staring at the characters as objects of our gaze. Sciamma makes Héloïse look back defiantly, resisting the passive state of the object. In doing so, she makes us, as audience, feel looked at. 

As distance disintegrates between Héloïse and Marianne and affection blooms, there is a shift in Sciamma’s visual vocabulary. The eyeline match shot structure of the film’s first half is increasingly replaced with a two-shot, in which Marianne and Héloïse are framed side-by-side on the same plane and talk to one another in unbroken long takes. The camera now shows two characters speaking to one another without privileging the gaze of either, not as self and other but as a female self interacting with another self. In other words, creating female intersubjectivity, the invisible space formed between two women who look at one another not demanding power but rather seeking understanding and love. Héloïse whispers to Marianne, “Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?” Perhaps it isn’t invention as much as it is an unveiling of something that has not been allowed to be publicly seen. 


The final shot of the film takes place years later, when Marianne spots Héloïse across a crowded orchestral hall one last time. It starts with us positioned as Marianne, staring across the vast theatre at Héloïse. But the camera smoothly tracks in, creeping closer and closer toward Héloïse until she fills the frame, even as she stares intently off-camera. As the music swells, Héloïse begins to weep, and in the distant look in her eyes, we know that her gaze is far, far away, searching for Marianne—or perhaps just a memory of her. Swept up in the tide of her emotion, the camera tilts as her head rocks, matched exactly to the motion as if we are locked within her gaze. 

By moving the camera from Marianne to Héloïse, Sciamma refuses to definitively place it in either woman’s gaze. This is not a relationship in which there is one authoritative subject whose gaze commands its object. It is a relationship of equality founded upon a mutual gaze in which both women are at once looking and being looked at. Nestling the camera in this intimate space between their gazes, Sciamma merges Marianne and Héloïse’s subjectivities, so that even as they part ways forever, they are held together, if only for a brief moment, in the camera’s eye, and in ours. The camera never cuts to what Héloïse looks at. It can’t, and it doesn’t have to. We too have been haunted, and we know. 


CJ GAN B’23 needs his year of rest and relaxation.