In her first three films, Céline Sciamma coerced ambivalent identifications with both the idealisations and frustrations of adolescent desire. Rarely premised on romantic satisfaction, these films reveal desire's potential rather than its achievement. By contrast, Sciamma's latest directorial feature has been received very differently: as a celebrated lesbian love story. As a story of painting — an artist falling in love with the subject of her portrait — Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film about representation itself, about the intensified spectatorship that comes with the sustained diegetic attention to the gaze. In several scenes, the painter Marianne closes her eyes in recollection, then rubs against the charcoal with her fingers, as if to touch her lover's face through the image. But might the film also be playing a trick on us? To leave us wondering: was Heloise always, only ever, an image in a portrait? This paper argues that rather than securing the mainstream demands of the period romance to reveal lost histories of lesbianism, Portrait of a Lady on Fire draws on Sciamma's radical visual vocabulary to capture desire's precarity. This is articulated by Sciamma's attention to the history of the lesbian (non-)image, encapsulated in references to films such as Rebecca and Persona. Citing the past with a distorted chronology, a plot device, a ghostly apparition or a mise en abyme, films such as Mulholland Drive, Carol and The Handmaiden have also threatened to make lesbianism but a misrecognition. This, I argue, is the site of Portrait's queerness – not (just) the explicit representation of a lesbian love story but rather a reckoning with cinema's own role in making prohibited desires legible on-screen. Just as Gayatri Gopinath locates the ‘queerness' of the corpus of her book Unruly Visions in ‘a specific spectatorial dynamic between the artist and the historical archive' (2018: 14), I find queerness in Sciamma's — and our — relationship to the visual archive of lesbian film history. This paper argues that by reminding us of desire's precarity, Sciamma's film virtuosically demonstrates its own negotiations with ‘lesbian' cinema, whilst opening up ways to read a visual map of queer possibility.
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