I Also Felt Your Absence

Togetherness and Creation in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire

A painting from Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) | NEON

NEON

Itried to take up needlepoint after the birth of my second child. I ordered a kit—“Hand Embroidery for Beginners.” The kit included an instructional booklet, seven skeins of embroidery floss, a piece of indigo-colored fabric, a wooden embroidery hoop, and a cool, slender needle. The booklet’s pages showed the steps to accomplish a feather stitch, a stem stitch, a French knot. The promise was that, with patience, I could create a trio of embroidered flowers with broad petals, leaves, and tiny blossoms, bringing them together on the fabric. I imagined that I could give the flowers as a gift—a gift for who, I didn’t know.

It was winter then. My newborn daughter had come home to the cramped one-bedroom apartment I shared with my husband and young son in South Brooklyn. Though her birth had gone well, I struggled tremendously with memories of the traumatic experience of birthing her older brother, how lonely the incident had left me. In the days that followed, the isolated postpartum period became increasingly friendless. When our daughter was 4 days old, my husband lost his job. The following night, our son woke up with a terrible case of croup, a viral infection that can be lethal for newborns. The boys were confined to the single bedroom, where they had access to the window and the cold night air that calmed my son’s stridor and hacking cough. I spent a week alone, sleeping on the small loveseat in the living room and disinfecting the kitchenette. I worked as a copywriter and breastfed for countless hours during the day. I watched over our daughter at night, monitoring her obsessively for fever. My baby was beautiful and inscrutable. I loved her, but I felt companionless. 

And so, to stop my mind from wandering to places of desperation, I tried embroidery. I thought it might teach me some sort of lesson; how to be still, how to be quiet, how to manage this solitude. In my creative life as a theater maker, I’d experienced deep and meaningful togetherness. But domestically, I’d been taught that there was something noble about my pervasive loneliness as a young mother. I sat by the window with my infant in my arms, watching the snowfall, reminding myself that I ought to be able to handle this part of life on my own. 

Alone with my newborn, I thought of a time in the short window of adulthood before motherhood found me: I was in my early 20s and sitting on the floor in someone’s apartment after a brunch shift at a cafe in SoHo. The afternoon had become evening, and the other waitresses and I were bathed in candlelight and passing around a second bottle of cheap red wine. We were all artists and writers and actors. One girl sketched another who was draped over a beat-up wingback chair. Someone sat behind me and French braided my hair. I longed for that sort of intimacy. I nursed my daughter and read the embroidery instructions. When she finally slept, I placed her in her bassinet and sat with the needlework for 20 minutes before throwing the hoop across the room. I was so lonely I couldn’t even navigate the thread through the needle’s eye. 

Two years after that reclusive winter, I gasped in my seat at Cobble Hill Cinemas watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire, written and directed by Céline Sciamma. It was a brisk day in late February 2020. A playwright I know recommended the film enthusiastically. I hadn’t seen her in years, but I missed her and I trusted her. And so I finished my freelance work for the day and—secretly and alone—walked five blocks through the bright morning to the movie theater. 

As the 18th century period drama begins, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives by rowboat to an estate on a windswept island in Brittany, where she has been commissioned to paint a bridal portrait of the unwitting Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who believes that Marianne has been hired as her walking companion. Marianne commits Héloïse’s face to memory during their walks along the rocky coast. She spends her evenings working clandestinely on the portrait. Eventually, Marianne reveals her true purpose. Héloïse agrees to sit for the portrait and, over the course of a handful of days, the women fall in love. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an exquisite lesbian love story about the relationship between a painter and her subject. It is also a story about radical togetherness and community among women. The opening images of the film are of female hands pulling slim pieces of charcoal across white paper or canvas; it’s a story about women deciding what is worthy of art.  

I leaned forward in the darkness as the housemaid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), embroidered flowers onto linen. I recognized the desire to pierce the cloth and pull the thread through to make something. We have seen this image before—a woman sewing and alone. Ophelia sews in her closet before Hamlet confronts her. Mary is often depicted with sewing in her lap when the angel Gabriel arrives to announce that she will bear the son of God. As Sophie held her embroidery hoop, I thought of all the ways I’d been taught to value a solitary heroine, how I’d tried and failed to become one myself in the cold days of my daughter’s infancy. 

Throughout the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City where I live, there are portraits on the walls of solitary women. Women reading, women sewing, women in lonely contemplation. There is Jean Honoré Fragonard’s Allegory of Vigilance and Eglon van der Neer’s The Reader. From The Young Virgin to the Old Woman Cutting Her Nails, there are dozens upon dozens of examples of these unaccompanied figures. Even Pinterest and Tumblr are filled with contemporary images of lone women at work kneading bread or arranging flowers, chopping vegetables, painting, or pulling thread through cloth. This aesthetic is an idealization of homebound simplicity—and of the alluring idea that a woman may create a private bliss with no one but herself.  

We have romanticized the solitary and domestic female figure. But as Sophie stitches her flowers, the image Sciamma gives us is not one of a lone woman. Sophie isn’t by herself. She’s alongside others. She’s in conversation with other women. The image of Sophie alone could very easily have been a painting by Vermeer, but pull back and there is Héloïse beside her preparing the meal the three women will share. Sophie is pregnant for a time in the film, though she isn’t alone and waiting for an angel to announce the fact. The angels are already in the room and they are chopping vegetables. She is her own angel. 

There was something about this depiction that felt radical to me. Though the last few years have seen a rise in gathering spaces for women, the majority of those spaces are aimed at empowering women to earn more, do more, achieve more. They are centered around the proverbial hustle. And we’ve seen women gather in great numbers since the 2016 election. But while images of women gathered in protest are inspiring, depictions of women together in peace are a balm. Héloïse and Marianne and Sophie give us this alternative. They give us a quiet, joyful sorority. 

Together, they deal with Marianne’s period pain. They sing. They read. They sew. They play music. They get high. They share meals. They laugh. In addition to the love affair between Héloïse and Marianne, they care for each other tenderly and without fanfare. It is just a fact of their existence alongside one another, however brief. Together, they unveil themselves. 

My first birth was incredibly fraught, and a subject I’ve long felt the need to hide. I arrived at the hospital in labor with my son on Christmas morning 2013. He was born at dawn two days later. I pushed for over four hours, trying to deliver him. He was posterior, sunny-side-up, and caught behind my pubic bone. I don’t remember the doctor putting the soft cup of the vacuum onto the baby’s head, though my husband says that she held the handle with both hands and appeared to pull with all of her strength. He was born. I hemorrhaged and lost consciousness. The birth resulted in the most severe vaginal tear possible, known as a fourth-degree laceration. I tore vaginal tissue, perineal skin, and muscles all the way through the anal sphincter—not up to it, through it. Though many birthing individuals experience tearing, fourth-degree tears are rare, occurring in only about 1% of deliveries. Some people who experience them deal with rectal prolapse or require colostomy bags. Some experience pain for the rest of their lives. When I regained consciousness on the delivery table, I watched the doctor between my legs stitching me, pulling surgical thread through my flesh. 

I belong to an online support group for people who have experienced similar birth injuries. Many are angry and traumatized. Most are in pain. And the group is a treasured space because most feel that it is the only place in which they can openly share their experiences. For a long time, I felt resentment toward my obstetrician, though her work on my repair was so skillful that I blessedly do not experience the long term consequences of a fourth-degree tear that many do. Still, I felt anger. I felt humiliation. In many ways, I found early motherhood to be an isolating experience because I was deeply ashamed of what happened to me. To talk about it was impolite. The facts of my body coming undone felt crude. It was a scene meant to be private, hushed, hidden. 

Nearly six years had passed since that difficult birth when I sat rapt and alone in the movie theater on that bright morning in February. I could not have anticipated the ways in which the film would recontextualize my birthing experiences. Two-thirds of the way through Portrait of a Lady on Fire, there is a scene that left me stunned—the film’s three women engaged in an act of creation. The lovers, Héloïse and Marianne, sit side-by-side on the bed where Sophie is resting after an abortion. “Go to bed,” Marianne tells Héloïse. “I’ll watch over her.” But Héloïse doesn’t go. She pulls a mattress in front of the crackling fire and tells Marianne to get her things. “We’re going to paint,” she says.   

Sophie lays on her back in a white nightdress, her long dark hair in a braid, and allows herself to be arranged by Héloïse, her knees lifted, her left hand placed on her belly. Héloïse assumes the role of the village herbalist who performed the procedure earlier in the day. Kneeling on the floor at Sophie’s feet, she tucks the end of the white sheet Sophie lays upon into the neckline of her green walking dress. “Look at her,” she says to Marianne. 

The women are together and still in the glow of the firelight until Marianne begins to paint. I held my breath as Héloïse and Sophie tailored the shapes of their bodies to the scene, and at the sight of the painter’s hands at work, I put my own hands over my mouth and began to cry. 

It is a fleeting moment in the film, a shot of a small canvas bathed in shadow which horizontal brushstrokes have primed a deep brown. Above this background, we see Marianne’s hands at work, careful strokes in white and peach and black—a start, a beginning, something in progress—rendering a scenario which I’d never before seen depicted in oil paints. Together, they decide that it is a story worth telling, a moment not to be hidden, but one worthy of preservation. 

This moment astonished me in the theater. And it moved me to tears again and again when I watched it in the darkness of my living room during the spring’s long and lonely quarantined months. The image of Marianne’s hands at work, Héloïse and Sophie slowly appearing on her canvas, was a rejection of solitude and an embrace of the vulnerability that true sorority requires. The women were not merely together. They were engaged in a profound creative experience, a collaboration. And to declare that image—one that might otherwise have been clouded by scandal or stigma—worthy of art felt like an act of incredible defiance, solidarity, and consolation. They insisted that women’s healthcare was a subject worthy of our gaze. 

As Marianne painted Sophie with her caregiver’s hands between her legs, I could not help but think of my doctor at work stitching the layers of muscle and tissue between mine. My physician suddenly seemed to me a work of art herself. I saw more clearly the ways she’d cared for me. I was not diminished, not ashamed. I did not need to hide. I felt healed. 

In the film’s titular portrait, Héloïse is alone on the canvas. But she is not sewing or mending. She is not reading quietly, passively. She is ablaze. And though she appears alone in the painting, the audience is aware of the scene around her—she is surrounded by women in song. I’d been taught to see only myself in the picture, a framing that only magnified my loneliness. Through the film, I discovered the importance of regarding the entirety of a scene. 

My daughter was delivered by the same physician in the same Manhattan hospital four years and eight days after my son was born, another vaginal birth, a risk. Were this scene composed on canvas, it would look like this: I am on my back, my red hair tangled and falling onto the pillow behind me. Two nurses hold my legs. There is a midwife at my side. There is my physician. Two more nurses hold my body together with their hands, determined that I should be alright. We are together in quiet concentration, women in striking composition. There is a unity of the elements, order, serenity. 

The room is blue, save the light of the lamp bathing my body and the glow of the red bulb in the bathroom. Beyond the large window, the night is black. And though it is invisible in the darkness, there is the sense of falling snow. We are together, all subtle progression of tone, all light, all shadow. My chin touches my chest as I push, as we ready ourselves to bring a girl into the world. It is a quiet scene, not some wild act of courage, but simply what we can do for one another if we are present, if we can be open to togetherness and communion. 

To have seen a painting like this before I’d given birth might have reframed my postpartum experience. No one was asking me to be a solitary heroine. This is something I want you to see. Look. Here is the brush in my hand. I am painting it for you now.