Feminist Filmmaking: ‘Cléo from 5 to 7’ and ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

Written by Becca Brown

Feminist cinema has come a long way since the ‘50s, but many of the core values remain the same. Cleo from 5 to 7 (Agnes Varda, 1962) is an almost closed-time black and white film set in mid-20th century France, depicting a day in the life of a musical star with suspected cancer. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019) is a colour film set in late 18th Century France following the story of a lesbian love affair. Seemingly, aside from both being French films directed by women, these two works should have little in common. But in reality, both films are perhaps two of the key works in pinpointing the progression of feminist cinema, from its inception to modern-day.

A key shared characteristic of both films is the theme of solidarity amongst women. In one poignant scene, Cléo meets her maid Angèle in a café and overhears a conversation between two arguing lovers. As Cléo listens, the man beside her tells his lover ‘Either I sleep with you or nothing’, to which she responds, ‘Then nothing’ (0:10:55-0:11:01). The man, embittered, responds ‘I have my pride. You’ll come running’ (0:11:10-0:11:16). Despite the lack of context, Cléo’s sympathy for the woman mirrors ours. In a similar way, Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire deals with ‘taboo’ topics; Sophie’s abortion highlights how shared experiences of women transcend the societal divisions of class – Sophie being a maid, Marianne a painter, and Héloïse their employer’s daughter. Like Varda, Sciamma chooses to devote an entire film to breaking down the assumptions about women – whether it be Cléo’s ‘hysterical’ premonitions being proven true or presenting genuine female-gaze-oriented lesbian relationships.

However, it isn’t just the shared themes that these films have in common; they also share symbolic techniques. In Cleo from 5 to 7, Varda opted to use relatively simple camera work – instead, the focus is on sound and music. Laura Mulvey recently wrote that ‘the determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure […] in their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed’.

Traditionally, cameras were built to be weighted for men – who carry strength in their shoulders, not their hips – and so the male gaze was what was always going to be projected through their lens. Varda focusing instead on soundscape seamlessly ignores the traditional filmmaking tropes that exacerbate the male gaze. She does not ask for a seat at the male table but instead builds her own. And it is exactly this table at which Sciamma has chosen to seat herself with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Sciamma manages to deftly include meta-references to gaze – through the story of Orpheus and Eurydice – to draw the audience’s attention to the ‘art’ of looking. As with Cleo from 5 to 7, Portrait of a Lady on Fire calls into question how to utilise an art form so built for the male gaze.

Picture credit: The Telegraph India

Unlike Varda however, Sciamma has chosen to face visual cinema head-on. Each shot is lingering just a little longer than comfortable and the colour palette, as beautifully described by Mark Kermode, are ‘tactile, painterly hues’. The whole film is shot in a series of Renaissance-style paintings that unashamedly portrays the beauty of female relationships. 

It is evident when watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire that the feminist directors of today have been influenced by Varda’s work. Although cinema has moved on, the techniques of creating a kind of antithesis to the male gaze have remained broadly the same. Varda’s legacy remains not only in her own work but lives on in the films of others inspired by her. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a masterclass of this, illustrating to feminist directors and audience members alike that in an industry dominated by the patriarchy for so long, truly beautiful feminist cinema is possible if only you are willing to shift your gaze.

Written by Becca Brown