Lesbian Legibility and Queer Legacy in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait de la jeune fille en feu/Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


As a story of painting–an artist falling in love with the subject of her portrait–Portrait de la jeune fille en feu/Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film about representation itself, about the intensified spectatorship that comes with a sustained diegetic attention to the gaze. This article argues that rather than fulfilling the mainstream demands of the period romance to reveal lost histories of lesbianism, Sciamma’s film draws on her radical visual vocabulary to capture desire’s precariousness. This is the site of Portrait de la jeune fille en feu’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 ‘queerness’ in ‘a specific spectatorial dynamic between the artist and the historical archive’, we can find queerness in Sciamma’s relationship to the visual archive of lesbian film history. This article argues that by reminding us of desire’s precariousness, Sciamma’s film demonstrates its own negotiations with ‘lesbian’ cinema whilst opening up ways to read a visual map of queer possibility.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)172-184
Number of pages13
JournalFrench Screen Studies
Issue number2-3
Early online date20 Dec 2022
Publication statusPublished - 26 May 2023

Cite this