The year's best LGBTQ film is by and about queer women — something still all too rare
Céline Sciamma is one of the few queer female voices on major film festival stages, and that needs to change
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.
After a few consecutive years in which well over a dozen LGBTQ films made splashes at the Toronto International Film Festival, 2019's edition definitely felt lacking in terms of quantity. But amidst the handful of feature films with leading queer characters found in TIFF's massive lineup, things were thankfully not lacking for quality. We got the exceptional likes of Pedro Almodóvar's semi-autobiographical Pain and Glory and Cory Finley's scandalous Bad Education (not to be confused with Almodóvar's film of the same name), collectively offering arguably career-best performances from Antonio Banderas and Hugh Jackman. Though if there's one film to emerge from TIFF (and 2019 in general) a new queer classic, it's Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Set in 1770s France, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a love story that significantly subverts the male gaze in its depiction of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter commissioned to create a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) that her mother can use to elicit marriage proposals. Except Héloïse doesn't want to get married, and has so far refused to even sit for any painter. So her mother has requested Marianne pose as a new maid to gain Héloïse's trust — but she gains much more than that. And as the women begin to fall in love, Portrait of a Lady on Fire evolves into a stirring and glorious new entry into the all-too-small canon of outstanding filmmaking both by and about queer women.
Sciamma already has quite a few films in this canon. She calls her first three films — 2007's Water Lilies, 2011's Tomboy and 2014's Girlhood, all of which are excellent — something of a coming-of-age trilogy that explores gender fluidity and sexual identity in teenage girls. Notably, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is really her first film about adults.
"I think that's the big departure from my previous work," Sciamma tells CBC Arts. "You know people are telling me, 'Oh you went into the past, that's what's different.' And I really feel what's different was that I was making a movie around adults with grown women and professional actresses... that's really what was new. Also because it's a whole new world. And the fact that it's a love story and also a love that is lived. Previously there was always kind of a love story of desire, but it was about discovering yourself. Now it's about discovering the relationship, discovering love and the dynamic of love and the emancipation of love."
Set in a time when the word "homosexuality" didn't even exist, Sciamma says the queerness of Portrait of a Lady on Fire lies in the fact that it's a love story with equality.
"If the story is not written, maybe it means that they can invent another relationship where there's no gender domination, but also no social hierarchy... inventing a new love dialogue," she says. "So that's the queerness of their relationship. I think it's equality."
Like Pain and Glory, Portrait of a Lady on Fire can't really be claimed by TIFF. Both of those films had their world premieres at the Cannes Film Festival back in May, which despite screening much less films that TIFF, had considerably more queer options. So much so that a record 18 films competed for that festival's Queer Palm award, a juried prize for the best LGBTQ film in Cannes (Rocketman, Matthias and Maxime and Port Authority were some of the other examples). Portrait of a Lady on Fire won the prize, somehow making it the very first film in the Queer Palm's 10 year history to be directed by a woman.
"It's crazy," Sciamma says upon noting that statistic. "But it also says a lot about how many films by women these festivals are programming."
Films about queer women have won, but in every case (Todd Haynes's Carol and Sébastien Lifshitz's The Lives of Thérèse), they were directed by men, as was Blue Is the Warmest Colour, which won Abdellatif Kechiche the Palme d'Or (though the film lost the Queer Palm to Stranger By The Lake). If you really consider how many queer female filmmakers have been given opportunities to present work about the queer female experience at major film festivals, it's quite disheartening. Aside from Sciamma, only Dee Rees (Pariah) and Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are Alright) come to mind as notable recent examples.
The lack of gender parity at film festivals is clearly something Sciamma knows all too well. She was one of the first signatories of France's branch of the 5050 by 2020 movement, and she co-organized the women's protest against inequality at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival alongside the likes of Agnès Varda, Ava DuVernay, Cate Blanchett and Léa Seydoux. When Portrait of a Lady on Fire premiered at the festival a year later, she and her actresses wore 50/50 pins to the screening. And she's not exactly impressed with the progress so far, especially at big European festivals like Cannes or Venice, where very few films (four and two, respectively) directed by women screened in competition this year.
"They are gender blind," she says of those festivals. "So it's like being colour blind. They lack culture and they are not taking the matter seriously. They lack reflection because they're in a better position if they ignore it. But the thing that makes me crazy is that they're not interested. We have to say that. They are not interested. So they're saying stupid things. When I hear people from the Cannes Film Festival or the Venice Film Festival swearing on the bible that they don't look at the gender of the films, I'm like, 'You should.' How can you say such a thing? So they are at that level. It's not interesting. And that's what's making me crazy — that they are making it less interesting."
Sciamma does believe festivals like TIFF (where 36% of films were directed or co-directed by women this year) and Sundance (where 41% of feature films were directed by women in 2019) are actually listening.
"We are in a moment where things are changing," she says. "It's not that they're changing step by step overnight... I don't believe in that. It's just that now it's more clear who the enemies are — who the political enemies are. I'd rather live in this world where I know my political enemies than in a world of blurred lines where everything is about opinion. I mean, now I can say 'shame,' you know... I feel like at least now we're having the right conversation with the right people. That wasn't always the case, so that's where my optimism lies."
For movie lovers seeking out representation that reflects their own identities, optimism can also certainly be found in the brilliance Portrait of a Lady on Fire. And hopefully soon enough it won't be such a rare example.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire will be released in theatres this December.