In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, A Secret Love and Four More Shots Please!, rooting for romance and desire
At first glance, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year but became available to stream in India via MUBI only recently), Chris Bolan’s Netflix documentary A Secret Love, and season 2 of Nupur Asthana's Amazon Prime Video India Original show Four More Shots Please! seem like entirely different entities, but at the core of all three — when you strip away the layers of form, treatment, tone, era — is a heart-stopping romance. #PrideMonth
Amid the onslaught of doom and gloom that 2020 has brought us, there have been slivers of silver linings, culture-wise. A case in point is the diverse yet strong depictions of same-sex relationships, specifically lesbian relationships, in three of the year’s cultural offerings which this essay examines in light of Pride Month.
At first glance, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year but became available to stream in India via MUBI only recently), Chris Bolan’s Netflix documentary A Secret Love, and season 2 of Nupur Asthana's Amazon Prime Video India Original show Four More Shots Please! seem like entirely different entities, but at the core of all three — when you strip away the layers of form, treatment, tone, era — is a heart-stopping romance.
Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is set in the late 18th century, and revolves around Marianne, a painter, and her muse Héloïse. Héloïse’s mother summons Marianne to the isolated Brittany, France, island they’re residing on to create a portrait of her daughter.
The film starts with Marianne attempting to reach the island in a rickety boat; she falls into the sea and is drenched, having to make her way to Héloïse's mansion soaked. It’s a sequence that indicates how the fire within Marianne is completely doused at the beginning.
When Marianne reaches her destination, she dries her bare form before the fireplace. Moments later, she seems more at ease in her skin as she informs the caretaker that helped herself to some bread from the kitchen and asks, “Is there some wine?”
Fire signifies passion, when it flares brightly, and longing, when it simmers.
A major portion of the film, shot indoors, is lit by candles. The scant sources of light and heat symbolise the suppressed emotions and desire of Marianne and Héloïse. The only occasions on which the camera seeks natural light is when the women step out for a walk. Seated by the ocean, the fire within them needn’t be banked as it is when they’re confined within the mansion.
At one point in the narrative, Héloïse's robe catches fire. While the women around her panic, Héloïse herself responds with a stillness — all of which is beautifully captured by Marianne on her canvas. Of course, with the 18th century being an impossible time for a lesbian union, the lovers must eventually part ways. Héloïse gets married, but indicates to Marianne years later that the fire within her simmers.
In 1947, two American women fall in love and begin to live together. It takes 65 years for them to be able to ‘come out’ to society about their relationship.
This is the premise of Chris Bolan's Netflix documentary A Secret Love, which released earlier this year. The retrospective portions of the documentary are mostly restricted to a few archival photos and a discussion of what the world was like in which Pat and Terry’s love blossomed. The focus instead is on their autumnal years, where their struggles are not so much about seeking legitimacy or approval for their relationship but about being able to care for each other (Terry has Parkinson’s Disease), looking for a new home that is easy to maintain, and ensuring they have quality time with Terry’s family.
They discuss marriage as same sex unions are now legal in their state, but Pat is initially averse to the idea. “It’s not going to change anything,” she argues. But later, she and Terry spontaneously decide to exchange vows after Terry’s family dedicates a romantic song to them. A family member officiates at the ceremony, telling the couple: “Now you may continue to live with and love each other like you have for over 65 years. You no longer have to call each other ‘cousins’. You may now each kiss the bride!”
If Portrait of a Lady on Fire expresses an unfulfilled longing, then A Secret Love shows the comforts of growing old with your partner.
A far more modern take on lesbian relationships, desire and love is seen in Four More Shots Please! season 2. This is an evolved, progressive relationship — one that lasts longer than the heterosexual flings depicted in the show and the only one that leads to the altar.
Even as the narrative acknowledges that only parts of Section 377 have been struck down and same sex marriages have still not been legalised in India, the portrayal of a sumptuous Indian destination wedding for a lesbian couple is still a big cultural moment for Indian television.
The importance of the visuals of the two brides-to-be partaking in the typical cutesy modern wedding rituals like photoshoots and dance performances at the sangeet ceremony, to their appearances in the shaadi ka joda, hands adorned with henna and kalira, cannot be understated.
The show is aspirational in many ways but is also able to bring in nuance by giving the audience a glimpse into the baggage the two women carry: Samara (Lisa Ray) is a former A-list Bollywood star, who must grapple with her insecurities to be open about her sexuality in the public eye. Umang (Bani J), on the other hand, is from a tier-II Punjab town and comes out years after moving to Mumbai.
In the end, Umang refuses to get married for the sake of making a statement about same sex relationships. She says she is not comfortable going ahead with the marriage as she has discovered she is being treated unequally in the relationship — something she has witnessed all around her and has evaded all her life.
As widely different as they may be, and with all the distance between them, you can tell it’s a sentiment which Marianne- Héloïse and Terry-Pat would approve of.
— All images via Twitter
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