– PRIDE MONTH 2020 –

She was a mess by the time the credits rolled: cheeks glistening with tears, hair falling down from her brow in messy strands, her hands dampened by futile attempts to wipe her face clean. The presto from the opening of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played on, and the three on the couch, gripping each other tightly, sobbed to see a woman they’d grown to adore over the past two hours be brought to such grief.

Dania reached for the tissues, and found the box missing.

“Who has the tissues?” she asked, lifting her head from Eleanor’s shoulder. She found the box, wrenching it from Gwen’s grip.

“Give them back!” she said, though didn’t reach out.

“We’re sharing them.” Dania blotted an eye as the closing credits scrolled. She let out a cry of anguish––despair at the film being over, tinged with relief at the emotional toil of the movie finally ending.

“Wow, okay, that lived up to the hype,” said Eleanor, blinking away tears.

“It looks like the scene from Midsommar in here,” Gwen observed, at the three women crying in tandem with the film’s star.

Eleanor laughed lightly. “There’s a touch of horror, I suppose. The horror of being alone? Of never finding that perfect partner?”

“I’m so glad we don’t––you know what?” said Dania, sitting back into the couch. “We take so much for granted about the way we live now. Can we acknowledge the benefits of not living in a time when arranged marriages were mandatory?”

“Cheers to that.”

“Honestly, cheers that we’re not living in a time when marriage is mandatory,” Eleanor added. “Just let me live at by oceanside villa with my lesbian painter lover, please.”

“Ugh, one can only wish,” Dania murmured.

No one said anything for a moment, allowing themselves to dream of isolation in such a castle––though, as Gwen knew, it would never look as exquisite as it did in Céline Sciamma’s lens.

“What a gorgeously shot film,” she said, pushing the tears back. “Truly, every frame could be hung on the wall. The blue of the ocean? I wanted to shout, the whole time.”

“The blocking!” said Eleanor. “The scenes with the Countess where no one moves a muscle! How do you manage to make the scene so tense when it’s all so simple?!”

“I liked all the moments with the servant girl, Sophie,” said Dania. “Luàna Bajrami. She’s got this dry way of delivering information that’s so perfect for the character. Half of the humor, at least, is her reacting to Marianne. And then you pair that with her subplot halfway though the movie…”

She lifted two fingers to her lips, kissing them like an Italian chef. “Perfection.”

“I almost wish…” began Gwen, before doubting herself.

“Wish what?” asked Eleanor. “Say it.”

“No, I’m not sure it’s true.”

“Just say it.”

“Well,” said Gwen. “Admittedly, this is a very ‘film buff’ thing to suggest but…when I rewatch it next, I might turn the subtitles off.”

Eleanor nodded, contemplatively. “Makes sense,” she said. “I mean, you’d probably still be able to understand what’s going on. To a point.”

“Exactly!” said Gwen, excitedly. “The filmmaking is so solid, and the emotional threads are so clearly defined, that the language is the least important element of the film. I’m sure it’s gorgeously written, don’t get me wrong. There’s artistry to the film’s seductive double-speak, the way they can talk about painting and have it be clearly read as flirtatious.”

“But it’s, like, more than that, yes,” Eleanor agreed. “Like, part of what allows that subtext to come out is how the film is shot. The blocking, and the proximity to each other, and the gaze––the gaze! Everyone’s eyes are so alive in the film!”

“Well…are they?” asked Dania.

“Did you think they were dead?”

“At times, yeah,” she admitted. “But it didn’t bother me. Because it’s all ‘shot like a painting’ and stuff, the thing I was focused on was the big picture. The framing of the shot. That told me everything I needed to know, more than the eyes did. I mean, the acting is so flat on the surface anyway––”

“Do not sully the good names of the actresses!” Gwen scolded. “Noémie Merlant is my mom!”

“I didn’t mean that in a bad way,” Dania backtracked. “It’s part of the movie. Justify it however; it’s the time period, they need to keep up appearances, the class system preserves the power dynamics, whatever. But the acting overall never goes for emotional extremes until the latter third of the story. Before that point, it’s the actresses playing the emotions very subtly, and the blocking and framing does most of the heavy lifting.”

“That shifts as the film goes on.”

“Well, yeah,” Dania said. “Look at the final shot.”

“My impression was that it was always just under the surface for everyone,” said Eleanor. “The moment when Marianne presents the first version of the portrait, everyone has to preserve the formality of their station. But you can see the scorn in Adèle Haenel’s eyes when she looks at the canvas. It burns from within. I mean, that’s the entire action of the film: the desperate attempt to bottle up emotions until they come spilling out, in a messy heap.”

“Granted, that’s the action of most romance films,” said Gwen.

Eleanor nodded. “True, but rarely do they pull it off as effectively as they do here,” she agreed. “Not to mention, it’s a film that does such excellent work at subverting the male gaze––and not just because the film is mainly four women in a chateau.”

“I think the total number of men with dialogue is…two?” said Dania. “Boat guy at the beginning, and the husband at the end?”

“Also, art gallery jerk.”

“Ah, three men.”

“That’s only part of it,” said Eleanor. “Sciamma’s direction is only a part, too. The main crux of the action is…well, you remember the part near the end? When Héloïse walks to the beach and Marianne follows?”

“What, when they’re crying together?” asked Dania.

“Yes, that scene exactly,” said Eleanor. “You remember what happens immediately following that scene?”

“Um…” Dania attempted to recall. The center of the film, after Héloïse lobbies for Marianne to stay, took on a less linear structure, with a series of short episodes that, while developing the relationship further, deviated from the linear progression of the plot. Dania had eventually given up on the subtitles, looking down only when she needed to glean the important plot elements––instead, choosing to lose herself in the luscious green of the portrait dress, the electric blue of the crashing waves, the crackling gold of the firepit at the women’s meeting.

As such, the imagery had woven together into a tapestry, and Dania had trouble detaching any single thread to see her friend’s point.

“I can’t recall.”

“They walk back into the dining hall, perfectly composed and cleaned up,” said Eleanor. “Like, is there a better transition to explain being a woman in love than that?”

“Oh, I did remember the other shot I loved!” said Dania. “It’s the one where they’re out on the first walk, and Marianne is in the foreground, and she looks back at Héloïse, but when she catches her looking she turns away, so her face––”

“We can only see Héloïse whenever Marianne turns her face to look at her!” said Gwen. “So our experience as a viewer is to feel the exact same game of chicken that Marianne is feeling in that moment. Brilliant convention of the camera. A+ work from cinematographer Claire Mathon.”

“Yes!” Dania said. “How many takes did something that specific take to get right?”

“That’s the major departure from the romance formula,” said Eleanor. “It’s not a film about wanting to be looked at. About the need to feel beautiful, or desirable, or anything like that. It’s a film about the freedom to choose who looks at you, who you feel safe being seen by. The moments of intimacy between Héloïse and Marianne––when they happen––are never presented as ‘pretty.’ When they kiss, we see the strands of saliva as the kiss breaks. When they’re in bed together, the body is filmed from a distance, without invasive close-ups. And that sort of intimacy, the intimacy of not needing to present yourself, but knowing the other person will still see you––”

Eleanor trailed off in her description, enraptured with the depth of the film’s thematic complexity. “Ugh, it’s just so gay!” she cried out, smiling.

They laughed at this outburst, before Gwen continued where Eleanor had left off.

“The gaze of others is an obstacle at every level of the film,” she argued. “The obvious example is the portrait itself. Héloïse refusing to pose, because of her hesitancy to let someone she doesn’t trust try to capture the ‘true’ version of herself, the version that isn’t made for someone else to look at. With her sheltered upbringing, it’s possible that she’s never developed a sense of private self at all.”

“Especially with the Countess leering over her, too,” said Dania.

“The portrait is the clearest example of gaze,” Gwen continued. “But there are more subtle viewpoints. Sophie’s abortion is built up as a private moment, something the women perform in secret and won’t speak of. But when it does happen, Héloïse and Marianne look on, in the hope that they have Sophie’s trust.”

“And then there’s a literal baby there, too!” said Dania. “The symbolism, of the baby looking back at her!”

“It’s brilliant!” said Eleanor. “Give that baby all the César awards!”

“One viewing isn’t nearly enough to unpack it effectively,” Gwen admitted. “This one will be sitting with me for a while.”

“Well, you’ve gotta rewatch it with the subtitles off,” Dania recalled.

Eleanor gasped. “Should we do that now?” she asked, excited.

“Give it a few days,” Gwen cautioned. “Sit with it. Look it over.”

“Gaze upon it,” added Dania. “See the truth underneath.”

“Or, whatever truth the film chooses to reveal,” said Eleanor, with a wink.


Image Source: The Detroit News