Structures of Looking in Portrait of a Lady on Fire


Laura Ivins


Published on/by


Indiana University


Accompanying text

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019) revolves around a refusal of a woman to be looked at. Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) will not sit for her own portrait, because she knows that portrait is the means to take her into an unwanted marriage with an unknown man. It’s the 18th century, though, and as an aristocratic woman Héloïse has little choice in whether or who she will marry.

Through its layered exploration of the act of looking, Portrait of a Lady on Fire also uncovers the range of choices available to 18th century, white, European women and the social limitations imposed upon them.

Sciamma and her collaborators have constructed a rich masterpiece, and there’s much that could be said about its sound design, acting, and painterly cinematography. But in this video, I wanted to focus on the look and some of the ways it’s elaborated within the film.