Art by Women About Women Making Art About Women

Art by Women About Women Making Art About Women

Melissa Febos
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he first lesbian movie I loved was Heavenly Creatures, Peter Jackson’s sumptuous 1994 film starring a young Kate Winslet as a dangerously charismatic schoolgirl who enraptures a sallow classmate with her phantasmagoric fantasy world. In the end, they kill the classmate’s mother. At age fourteen, that squared with my concept of love: predicated on fantasy, eroticized by power imbalance, likely to end in murder—not so much that of anyone’s mother, but more likely of me, by the strength of my own whirling feelings.

A year later, it was The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love, Maria Maggenti’s considerably less gothic tale of high school senior Randy (a young, butch Tina from The L Word), who has been sleeping with an older, married woman when she meets Evie, a rich and popular girl who stops at the gas station where Randy works. The movie ends with the two kissing amid a chaotic muddle of class tension, homophobic friends, and angry parents and school administrators. It was a perfect anthem for me at age fifteen, as I had recently begun making out with my rich best friend and was the only out kid in my high school class.

After that came Bound, Chasing Amy, All Over Me, High Art, and But I’m a Cheerleader. I watched and re-watched all of these movies because they showed me myself. Not only because I was queer and prone to phantasmagoric imaginings—as well as to listening to Patti Smith on repeat, wearing stilettos, and heroin addiction—but also because they reflected and suggested my vision of love: as sexy and codependent, forged in opposition to some external conflict. It’s no surprise that both I and the movies I worshiped relied upon a certain kind of high-femme, drug-addled, ambisexual Riot Grrrl iconography. After all, we grew out of the same ’90s post-AIDS homophobia, Cindy Crawford–cum–heroin chic, third-wave feminist stew.

Those types of love are predictable because they are defined by the external circumstances of their stories; their tension depends upon the disapproval of others, and the threat of exile, erasure, or even death. Their object is ultimately not the lover but survival or self-discovery. And that’s fine. For over a century, people have been looking for themselves in love and producing movies about it. It makes a special kind of sense that queer movies feature this adolescent type of love, because our kinds of love have seen so little representation over that time. The story of queer love has been one of survival in life as in art.

While my own young exploits in love were often messy, dramatic, and hot, I didn’t fully actualize the romantic ideal curated by those films until I was in my early thirties. I was too old and had been in too much therapy, but a type of desire that confused love with survival rose in me. My lover lived thousands of miles away with another woman, was prone to chilly withdrawals and extravagant gifts, and was happy to collaborate on a doomed romantic narrative with me.

By that age, I had been addicted to and recovered from myriad things, and none had strung me out as badly as she did. The sex, of course, was transcendent with desperation, my desire relentless in its quest for purchase on that pitching deck. It was exactly the sort of love that people write songs and screenplays about, and it was hell, in the style of my teen favorite films: predicated on fantasy, eroticized by power imbalance, and fraught with the fear of emotional annihilation. Near the relationship’s end, I watched Blue Is the Warmest Color, a 2013 French movie about young female lovers that was criticized for both its melodrama and its allegedly pornographic sex scenes, although at the time I found both utterly believable.

The heroines of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a very different French film, are no older than those of my old favorite movies, and the circumstances surrounding their affair are no less pressured, yet everything else about their story, which is to say its telling, is different. The film begins as Marianne, a fox-faced painter, poses for her busily sketching female students. At the back of the classroom, she spots a painting that the students have pulled out of storage. It features the figure of a woman against a moody night sky, the skirt of her dress aflame.

“Who brought that painting out?” she asks.

“Did you paint it?” a student inquires, and with Marianne’s “yes” we are taken in flashback to 1770 Brittany, when she arrives at a wealthy family’s coastal estate. She has been hired to paint a portrait of Héloïse, whose mother has promised her to a Milanese gentleman, the intended recipient of the portrait. Héloïse is uninterested in the marriage and has already thwarted one painter by refusing to pose. Héloïse is told that Marianne will be her hired walking companion, and Marianne is told she must make a covert study of her subject and paint the portrait in secret.   

Later in the film, the two women have a conversation (in bed, of course) about what “the moment” was for each of them—when they first wanted to kiss the other, when they knew it was love. Sciamma’s languorous buildup of the women’s dynamic evoked my own experience of falling in love more exactly than any film I’d ever seen. Before the two characters even kissed, I felt a vicarious kindling in my own chest, a corporeal recognition of the kind of love I had most recently known: the draw to a kindred mind rather than to an opportunity for a half-blind reenactment of some old script. Their first kiss does not come until over an hour into the film. Until then, there are slow, ravishing scenes of their walks beside the crashing shore, Marianne memorizing the curve of Héloïse’s neck and hands. The film has no soundtrack and uses its one piece of music—Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—both as a plot point and to illustrate how rare such music would have been to these characters, one of whom has known only the music of the church organ.

When Héloïse’s mother permits her to walk alone so that Marianne can use the daylight hours to paint, Marianne tells her: “Your mother will let you go out alone tomorrow. You’ll be free.”

“Being free is being alone?” asks Héloïse.

“You don’t think so?”

“I’ll tell you tomorrow.” When tomorrow comes, Héloïse reports that “in solitude, I felt the liberty you spoke of. But I also felt your absence.” It is a kind of thesis—both for the film’s depiction of love and also for what I have come to value in place of that younger, fiendish model, which was defined by catastrophe and opposition. A model of love in which independence is freedom and love is a choice between equals. Indeed, Sciamma has said that she wanted to write “a love story that is not based on hierarchies and relationships of power and seduction that exist before the encounter.”

How many love stories, particularly in film, can you think of that do not rely on such dynamics? The ones that do are, unfortunately, believable. Many people never experience the kind of romantic love that derives its tension from sources beyond hierarchy and power imbalance, which are so often presented to us as synonymous with romance. Patriarchal models of love need no men to enact them. Blue Is the Warmest Color is a film about two queer women, but it still enacts the torment of power imbalance and sex that plays to the male eye. I was unsurprised to learn, years later, that the female actors found the environment of the male director’s studio similarly patriarchal and borderline abusive. Even after all those years of therapy, at age thirty-two I still fell under the sway of such a rapture, and breaking free was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do. After the breakup, I finally learned what Marianne already knows: that aloneness is freedom, and can be preserved even in love.

If, under the male artist’s gaze, a woman “turns herself into an object… a sight,” as John Berger proposes in Ways of Seeing, then under the female artist’s gaze, Sciamma suggests, she is free not only to remain herself but also to return the gaze. Even after they become lovers, Héloïse and Marianne never collapse into professions of undying love or the language of dependence. I won’t say it is impossible for a work of art by a man to offer a model of love so divested of hierarchy and female objectification, though I have never seen one. I have hardly seen such art made by anyone. This is surely a factor in why I have rarely experienced love free from these patriarchal dynamics. If I’d seen more films like this one, it might have been possible sooner. It takes an extraordinary imagination to enact a reality beyond experience or example. It is mostly through art—that of women, and ultimately my own—that I have been able to envision and manifest an alternative model of love.

“In our studio,” Sciamma explains of her work with Adèle Haenel, who plays Héloïse, “there is no muse: there are just two collaborators who inspire each other.” Her words struck me as a precise description of the love I aspired to in that catastrophic affair’s aftermath—and that I have since found. Sciamma’s words become true of her characters as well. Marianne’s first portrait of Héloïse is accomplished in accordance with the formal conventions of the time, but when she finally reveals it to Héloïse, her verdict is that it is lifeless. After Marianne destroys the painting and Héloïse agrees to pose for her formally, their collaboration begins in earnest.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” Marianne tells Héloïse one day in the light-drenched studio.

“You haven’t hurt me,” Héloïse corrects her, tugging on her mouth.

“I have, I can tell,” Marianne retorts. “When you’re moved, you do this with your hand.”

“Really?” asks Héloïse, biting her lips.

“Yes,” says Marianne. “And when you’re embarrassed, you bite your lips.” Indicating her position behind the easel, she says, “Forgive me; I’d hate to be in your place.”

“We’re in the same place,” Héloïse counters. “If you look at me, who do I look at?” Their rapport is passionate, yes, but also playful, sensuous, and specific.

“Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?” Héloïse asks Marianne the night they first make love. In my experience, no. Oftentimes, lovers feel as if they are consummating a story that was written for them. However acute the pain of any love, I often still knew the steps from memory. As a younger woman, even when my girlfriends and I fought, sometimes it felt as if we were in a movie. The sense of inventing something came only when I departed from the scripts I’d inherited from film and television, from the countless implicit prescriptions that we all receive. I no longer find physical distance—or the punitive manipulations of emotional withdrawal or obfuscation—romantic. Now Eros exists in the distance between my lover and me as autonomous creatures, as people who need not fuse or suffer or unite in rebellion in order to love. 

“Even though these women knew their lives were marked out in advance, they experienced something else,” Sciamma says of her characters. “Their bodies become their own when they are allowed to relax, when vigilance wanes, when there is no longer the gaze of protocol, when they are alone.” It is this aloneness that gives the film’s depiction of love its realness, its maturity. One must know oneself in order to be alone in love, to be differentiated in love. Otherwise, oneself and one’s love can be enmeshed and defined only in relief: against the disapproving parents, the addiction, the mobster husband, the distance, the restrictive religiosity of late-eighteenth-century France, the future husband in Milan. The drama of Portrait of a Lady on Fire doesn’t lie in whether or not the lovers will resist their fates or survive apart. They will separate and they will survive. The story is their collaboration in the creative acts of loving and of remembering.

“The film is designed as an experience of both the pleasure of a passion in the present and the pleasure of emancipatory fiction for the characters and the audience,” explains Sciamma, and I wonder: Can every work of love and art be described as an emancipatory fiction, as the story that carries us or that we carry? For me, the answer is yes, though art is sometimes also the hammer with which I shatter the fiction.

I spent the last year of that wrenching affair trying to write the story of it, and another year after it ended. I had to find the truest shape of it I could render before the memory became bearable to carry. The first version I wrote was too beautiful. It was still colored by the lens through which we’d tried to see ourselves; it had too much in common with those movies I’d watched as a girl. I had to strip away the script we’d been following and look at it with my own eyes. How much starker it became when I did, and how much more interesting. Without the patina of romance or tragedy attributed to forces beyond our control, we became more culpable as characters in our own story. My lover and I were not flotsam in some whitecapped storm of fate, but two desperate women whose choices had consequences and whose intentions were self-interested. There was passion, but also cruelty and a deep desire to refuse the obvious. We were neither of us heroes, and this truer rendering required a form beyond the hero’s journey. The shape of my story changed to accommodate its content, which demanded an aesthetic less dependent on linearity and resolution than on the prismatic and on rumination.   

“Art (and art-making) is a form of consciousness,” Susan Sontag wrote. The book I wrote became less an image of what had happened than a representation of my consciousness—both as the young lover I was, the woman on fire, but also as the artist looking back, her gaze cooled. Similarly, I imagine Marianne painting that final portrait, which she keeps for herself, that blazing skirt like a hole torn in the night. I’ve heard it said that all scholarship is secret autobiography, and maybe the same is true of aesthetics.

This certainly seems true of Portrait. At the end of the film, we return to the present, as Marianne sorts through her students’ sketches.

“You’ve made me look so sad,” she tells one.

“You were,” says the student.

“I’m not anymore,” she answers, and I believe her. It turns out that the painting the students have dragged out of storage is not the commissioned portrait of Héloïse but an image of her that obeys no artistic convention. The figure who stands in that painted night, her skirt ablaze, is not so much a literal representation of Héloïse as a lyrical expression of Marianne’s truth. It is her memoir.

Portrait is as much an art story as a love story. Marianne’s painting is portrayed first as a technical exercise, an image built by submitting to a set of ideas defined by others, not unlike those love stories that depend upon external conflict to characterize strong feeling. In one scene, Marianne explains to Héloïse that she is not allowed to paint nude portraits of men, “because I’m a woman… It’s mostly to prevent us from doing great art. Without any notion of male anatomy, the major subjects escape us.”

Sciamma undermines the notion that art requires men at all. Another film would have Marianne’s triumph be a painting that succeeded by patriarchal standards of great art. But Sciamma wants more than just the professional success of her heroine; she wants to redefine what important art represents. Héloïse prompts Marianne to paint a portrait that defies masculine convention and honors female truth. It is a meta-argument, of course, enacted in a film that features no men in prominent roles, that understands that to use men as a foil to tell a story about women in love would be to make it into another movie about men. Instead, it is a work of art by women about women making art about women. Like the lovers it portrays, the film’s feminist priorities are not reactive. The film is not in opposition. It is alone and it is free.

At almost forty, I still appreciate High Art—especially Patricia Clarkson as the junky German ex-girlfriend—and I still have a crush on Clea DuVall in But I’m a Cheerleader. My fiancée and I recently re-watched Bound, and I found I still loved it, though time has made retrograde all my old reasons for relating to it: its noir shadows and campy eroticism, its reliance on binaries and stereotypes, and its slippery relationship to the male gaze, which is at once behind the camera and in front of it. It’s certainly no longer a mirror. Watching it, I understood that my fascination with the aesthetics of love stories that draw from those old prescriptions has waned, along with my interest in the kinds of love those stories glorify. I still like my love stories as I like my love, though now that means unadorned by manipulative soundtracks, shorn of the male gaze, repudiating hierarchy, and recognizing autonomy as a condition for true love. When I finally met someone who shared this aesthetic, both in her art and her love, of course I asked her to marry me.

Like Marianne, I’m no longer the girl on fire, but the artist. Love has not destroyed me, but it has helped to create me. It has made me a better lover and creator. In return, I make my memories of love into objects—not archives of experience, but relics of vision. The story of some way that I saw, before I changed and had to look away. If I’m lucky, they will be mirrors for those I’ll never meet.

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