There is something about female intimacy on-screen that is different when it’s directed by a woman. It’s poetic. It’s mesmerizing. It’s something that needs to be done more often on screen. Portrait of a Lady on Fire doesn’t fetishize women. Directed Céline Sciamma, this movie solely focuses on the romance between the two female characters, a painter and her subject. It doesn’t focus heavily on the sex scenes there aren’t any… sure a couple of nude scenes but that’s just it.
Instead of focusing on those elements, it centres around the two characters infatuation for one another. The character’s point out each other’s beauties and flaws and little details of their mannerisms. These details are subtle… but it matters. It matters because when these characters are describing them out loud, it’s when they realise that they have feelings for each other. It’s chaotic for them. A slow burn for them and us, as the audience just waiting for them to embrace each other. It just leaves you breathless.
It’s about a romance where the painter knows that their relationship will end. It’s inevitable. They cherish their time together. At one point in the movie, the painter’s lover/subject points out that she doesn’t have a portrait of the painter. The painter who has observed every little detail of her lover/subject points out that she would never forget to draw her because she has memorized every little inch of her. That scene is beautiful as the two characters lay down in bed, a mirror placed on her body while the painter drew a self-portrait of her.
Romance and female intimacy are so beautiful and poetic when it’s done right. I enjoyed watching the two characters struggle to accept that they had feelings for each other and when they finally admitted it, I believe that this where the movie begins. The cinematography, the music and the chemistry between the two characters are so raw and every scene is just enjoyable to watch from beginning to end. The film captures the nervousness and fear of both of the characters. As the shots focus on the subject’s face and body, it is as though the audience and the painter are observing the subject together.
Female intimacy and the male gaze.
There are many movies such as Blue Is The Warmest Colour which was directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. Sure, the film portrayed female intimacy and had an intense sex scene, which in my opinion wasn’t necessary at all. Another film, which is directed by Park Chan-wok, The Handmaiden portrays female intimacy. It also happens to be one of my favourite movies of all time. The Handmaiden’s story is set in the 1930s when Korea is under Japanese colonial rule and about a young woman who is hired by a conman to seduce a Japanese heiress out of her inheritance. The two women explore their relationship, scams the conman and escapes together.
Park Chan-wok has directed movies with female protagonists before. He also understood that there is a lack of female characters in commercial feature-length films. For his tenth film, he wanted the film to represent female characters the makes the film more enriched and sophisticated. To write the characters for this movie, he pushed the limits off the female perspective. The two female characters explore the romance and sexual connection, which eventually leads them to form an alliance.
In Hollywood, there are a lot of movies that depict men bringing other women down or women bringing other women down. Or the occasional romantic comedy formula love triangle, where two female characters fall the same guy and the two female characters are only seen as desperate and foolish. Chan-wok doesn’t follow this plot and the director makes an interesting point about this:
It divides everything into two clear sides, and that’s to make a point. It pits man against woman, almost as a battle of the sexes, and you have the female characters forming an alliance to fight against the male oppressors and escaping from them. In this film, all the men are villains and all the men are pathetic. The only cool characters are women. And the only positive male characters in the film are one or two babies.
Instead of focusing on that theme, The Handmaiden focuses on the core of the character’s relationship. It goes against those conventional themes and mainly focuses on the two characters. The film also explores their relationship without sexualising them. In my opinion, this is a great example of queer Asian representation without making these characters a “sex object”. The director wants female characters to have more realism and depth rather than obsessing over a man.
There were issues with Blue Is The Warmest Colour that wasn’t about the story, but it was related to the treatment of the two female actors in the movie. There were a lot of rumours about how the crew and cast were mistreated on set. Another issue was that this movie is directed from the male gaze. It’s not art or doesn’t show the true nature of female intimacy like the other films. But it is more of what the director desired, rather than showing an artistic form of female intimacy. I understand that ultimately in a film, it is the director’s role to show the audience what he/she sees. It is their role to create art and reflect it on the screen whether it is poetic or abstract, however, the director wants it. But during intimate scenes, where two actors are subjected to forcefully perform sexual acts that are out of their comfort zone, that is where things went wrong.
In actions films, the stunts are choreographed. In films where there are intimate scenes, it is choreographed too. The actors would get reassured before they start shooting scenes like this, as it is important to make them feel as comfortable as possible. The controversial sex scene in Blue Is The Warmest Colour, which lasts for seven minutes took ten days to shoot.
“Once we were on the shoot, I realized that he really wanted us to give him everything,”
“Most people don’t even dare to ask the things that he did, and they’re more respectful — you get reassured during sex scenes, and they’re choreographed, which desexualizes the act.”
This continued for the rest of the months. From the press tours to winning the awards, the director kept belittling and dismissing what the female actors remarks about his treatment during the shoot. They voiced their opinions but were asked if they were an artist of the red carpet or an actress. (Because they walked on the red carpet wearing jewellery and dresses, I mean how else are you going to look fabulous?)
If the director had centred the movie around the relationship rather than fetishizing the sexual intimacy between the two characters, this would’ve been a great movie. There was no need to show us that intimacy. It wasn’t necessary. Female intimacy doesn’t have to revolve around sex. It could be through dialogues or in the close-up shots of the female characters through their gaze. It’s subtle. It shows the audience what they’re seeing.