Queering the (Female) Gaze: Teaching Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

By Sarah E. S. Sinwell


Stories of LGBTQIA+ people, as well as about women and girls, may be marginalized in more general film studies classes, which often focus on “Great Directors,” creating a canon that typically features the work of (white heterosexual Western) men. So, lately I have taken on the task of including more women, LGBTQIA+, and nonwhite directors and stories and (re)imagining a new canon. Having taught Céline Sciamma’s 2014 film Girlhood in my Women Directors course in 2018, I was interested to see what students in my Film Theory course would think of her Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). In 2020, I included it in Film Theory, and my students also chose to watch Girlhood for our to-be-announced day, so we got to screen and discuss both films in relation to the gaze and auteurism.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a French historical romance that tells the story of two women who fall in love when a painter (played by Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of an aristocrat (played by Adèle Haenel). However, this film not only is significant as a queer love story. It is also particularly unusual because of its female-centric and queer cinematic style and visual and oral storytelling. Much like the work of Chantal Akerman (of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles [1975]) or Jane Campion (of Sweetie [1989] and The Piano [1993]), Sciamma’s films push the boundaries of representations of femininity and female desire.

Using the lenses of film and media theory, critical cultural studies, and feminist and queer theory, I encourage my students to read media texts as a means to understand the broader political and cultural contexts that shape contemporary understandings of sexuality and gender. Addressing the sociocultural implications of the intersections between contemporary media and female and queer identity, this exercise also considers the ways in which discourses about power, identity, and subjectivity become visible through media aesthetics and style. 

Lesson Plan

Céline Sciamma wrote and directed four features: Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011), Girlhood (2014), and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). In addition, she wrote the screenplays for Ivory Tower (2010), The Returned (2012-2015), Being 17 (2016), and My Life as a Zucchini (2016). Her work focuses on young women’s identity, performance, and agency. At the same time, Sciamma uses bodies, affect, and vulnerability to tell her stories, blurring the edges between pain and desire, and often relies on an aestheticizing gaze and filmic synesthesia (sensory overload). For this lesson, we watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), read the following essays, and then answer the following questions.


Mulvey, Laura. 2000. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Feminism and Film, edited by E. Ann Kaplan, 34-47. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

de Villiers, Nicholas. 2007. “Glancing, Cruising, Staring: Queer Ways of Looking,” Bright Lights Film Journal, August 1.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What are your general thoughts about the film?
  2. How does this film represent Sciamma as an auteur?
  3. How does it represent women and femininity through its gaze?
  4. How does the gaze shift between the characters?
  5. How does the film defy Hollywood conventions of the gaze as described in Mulvey’s essay?
  6. How does it incorporate alternatives to the gaze such as glancing and staring?
  7. How does the film create a queer gaze?

Additional Readings

Benshoff, Harry, and Sean Griffin, eds. 2004. Queer Cinema: The Film Reader. London: Routledge.

Benson-Allott, Caetlin. 2017. “No Such Thing Not Yet: Questioning Television's Female Gaze.” Film Quarterly 71, no. 2 (Winter): 65-71.

Bradbury-Rance, Clara. 2019. Lesbian Cinema after Queer Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Butler, Alison. 2002. “Introduction: From Counter-Cinema to Minor Cinema.” In her Women’s Cinema: The Contested Screen, 1-24. London: Wallflower.

Columpar, Corinn, and Sophie Mayer, eds. 2009. There She Goes: Feminist Filmmaking and Beyond. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Gever, Martha, Pratibha Parmar, and John Greyson, eds. 1993. Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video. New York: Routledge.

hooks, bell. 1992. “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” In her Black Looks: Race and Representation, 115-31. Boston: South End Press.

Pullen, Christopher. 2016. Straight Girls and Queer Guys: The Hetero Media Gaze in Film and Television. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Richards, Stuart. 2016. “A New Queer Cinema Renaissance.” Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture 1, no. 2: 215-29.

Sarris, Andrew. 1999. “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 561-64. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

White, Patricia. 2015. “Introduction.” In Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting Contemporary Feminisms, edited by Patricia White, 1-27. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Wollen, Peter. 1999. “From Signs and Meaning in the Cinema: The Auteur Theory.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, [519-535]. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Films Cited

Akerman, Chantal. dir, 1975. Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. New York: Criterion Collection. 120 minutes.

Barras, Claude, dir. 2016. My Life as a Zucchini. Lyon, France: Gébéka Films. 65 minutes.

Campion, Jane, dir. 1989. Sweetie. New York: Criterion Collection. 99 minutes.

---. 1993. The Piano. Woollahra NSW, Australia: Jan Chapman Films. 118 minutes.

Gobert, Fabrice, cr. 2012-15. The Returned. Paris, France: Canal+.

Sciamma, Céline, dir. 2007. Water Lilies. Paris, France: Haut et Court. 85 minutes.

---. 2011. Tomboy. Paris, France: Pyramide Distribution. 82 minutes.

---. 2014. Girlhood. Paris, France: Pyramide Distribution. 113 minutes.

---. 2019. Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Paris, France: Pyramide Distribution. 120 minutes.

Téchiné, André, dir. 2016. Being 17. Berlin, Germany: Wild Bunch Distribution. 116 minutes.

Traynor, Adam, dir. 2010. Ivory Tower. Toronto, Canada: Gentle Threat, Schmooze, Première Heure Productions. 75 minutes.

Sarah E. S. Sinwell (sarah.sinwell@utah.edu) is an associate professor in the Department of Film and Media Arts at the University of Utah. She has published essays on Kickstarter, Green Porno, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Mysterious Skin in A Companion to American Indie Film, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Feminist and Queer Theory: An Intersectional and Transnational Reader, and Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives. Through analyses of such topics as YouTube, web series, art house cinemas, and queer and female independent filmmaking, her research investigates the intersections between contemporary American independent cinema and new media platforms. Examining shifting modes of independent film distribution and exhibition on YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, and SundanceTV, her recently released book Indie Cinema Online (Rutgers University Press, 2020) redefines independent cinema in an era of media convergence. Sarah teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses, such as Introduction to Film and Media Arts, Women Directors, Queer Media, Independent Cinema, and Convergence Cultures.