‘Little Women’, ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’, and the Significance of Materiality

There is a persistent image of an artistic genius: a man who possesses an unmatched vision, a vision which is likely to arrive spontaneously, in an almost holy fashion. This is a trope which is rooted in dualist thinking, in the separation of the body from the mind and/or the soul, and in the suggestion that the body, with its base physicality, is subordinate to the wonder of these amorphous entities. In the context of film, the mythology of the artistic genius manifests in auteur theory. The auteur (Tarantino, Hitchcock, or Frances Ford Coppola, but rarely ever Sofia Coppola) is a filmmaker whose essence is thought to colour each project, while the material conditions which allow film to be created (including the many people who contribute to crafting each aspect of it, performing the physical labour of sewing, building, assembling, shooting) remain overlooked. 

It is the singularity of the ‘genius’ mind which is so frequently favoured, but which is challenged by Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), two films which chronicle the lives of artists and their processes of artistic creation. Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic novel is framed by important moments in the writing career of Jo March (Saorsie Ronan): the first time she has a story accepted for publication in New York, and the first time that she is able to hold her own novel, Little Women itself, in her hands. Meanwhile, Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire follows an eighteenth-century French painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who has been commissioned to complete a portrait of a noblewoman named Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) prior to her arranged marriage to her Milanese suitor. 

Gerwig and Sciamma’s objective in portraying artmaking is by no means only to prove the ingenuity of their characters. Neither writing nor painting is depicted as a practice animated by prodigiousness or divine inspiration. The filmmakers instead situate art within a wholly material realm and, in doing so, they enact a reclamation which radiates class consciousness and feminist energy. By emphasising the materiality of art, they demonstrate a deep awareness of the physical restrictions placed upon women—particularly in their lack of access to money and mobility. 

Gerwig’s restructuring of Little Women⁠ begins with a business meeting. After Jo passes her story to a publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), he begins to make marks, crossing out entire pages, scraping them violently with his pen. Each time I saw the film in theatres, this moment elicited an audible response: quiet gasps, nervous laughter. Making a choice which defies the heroic trope of the artistic martyr who sacrifices everything for their artistic vision, Jo acquiesces to his edits. At this point in Gerwig’s script, the words “(money over art)” are added bluntly above the dialogue. In a recent panel, Gerwig says of rereading Little Women as an adult that it is clearly about “women and art and money, and how do you make art if you don’t have money?”. She quotes Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “Intellectual freedom depends upon material things,” and it is this recognition which underpins the film, that being interpreted as a genius necessitates some form of privilege. 

The opening scene demonstrates that the prospect of pure artistic control for Jo—as an unmarried woman who must earn money for herself and her family—is limited. The jarring tactility of Mr. Dashwood’s harsh cuts (and Jo’s pained expressions in response to them) affirm that her artistic struggle, imbued with brutal tension, is playing out within the material world. This tension is reflected, too, during Jo’s writing process, which is less spontaneous than it is war-like. This is most visible in her strategic costuming: in many of her writing scenes, she wears a military jacket. In one of these scenes, Gerwig’s stage directions read: “Her writing is like an attack, moving into enemy territory and occupying space.” Writing is thus further shown to be an embodied act—one which may be arduous and burdened by politics.

It is this process which anticipates the final scene, wherein Jo watches as her book, Little Women, is assembled. We are shown every aspect of this: printing, sewing, binding, embossing. Each step is emphasised with close-ups of the making process and reverse-shots which depict Jo’s satisfaction. Jo’s novel is a product of her tangible labour—including her elaborate bargaining with Mr. Dashwood, which she savours to the decimal point—and, as such, it is itself shown to be something incredibly tangible. 

In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, art (particularly portraiture) is also largely understood in the context of women’s access to mobility and material wealth. The wedding portrait which Marianne is commissioned to paint initially holds significance to her because it facilitates her independence, her ability to travel and earn her own money. Alternatively, for Héloïse, the prospect of the portrait is itself constricting, contributing to the lack of agency she holds over her movement: it promises to preserve her youth and beauty for the sake of her husband while she sits, passively, before being shipped involuntarily to Milan. 

Sciamma is conscious of art as a force which affects and is affected by the actuality of the characters’ lives as women in eighteenth-century France. She does not romanticise Marianne’s artistic process as seamless or mythologise Héloïse as a muse. Painting is weighted with real restrictions for both characters and, as such, it quickly establishes a visceral presence. In the second scene, as we watch Marianne travel by boat to the island inhabited by Héloïse, the wooden box containing her few canvases is flung overboard, forcing her to dive, fully clothed, into the sea to retrieve it. This image of Marianne—submerged, reaching out to grasp the box, contending with the cold and the momentum of the waves—highlights the necessity of material objects to her work and is characteristic of her physical struggle with artistic creation, a struggle which is shared by Héloïse as she maneuvers the painter’s gaze. 

This is furthered as Marianne’s painting process becomes characterised significantly by exertion in the form of practice and repetition. At the beginning of the film, she is shown teaching a life drawing class, carefully describing how particular body parts should be drawn. Later, she talks to Héloïse about learning to draw women nude, while being forced to draw men in secret as it was forbidden; she believes this is not only for the sake of ensuring feminine modesty, but that it constitutes a deliberate suppression of women’s work. Being an artist is not portrayed as an intrinsic quality which she possesses; artmaking is depicted instead as slow, processual, and delimited by socially instated boundaries.

This culminates in shots of Marianne painting which seemed to me remarkably long. In one painting scene, Marianne begins with a blank canvas which develops—gradually, punctuated by moments of erasure—into vague charcoal markings indicating a face shape, a mouth, eyes and nose: a basic structure carved out almost in real time. The act of painting is not weightless; each lick of paint is instead heavy with associations. Imbued with ambivalence, Marianne frequently hesitates, her hand hovering over the canvas as she grapples with a single stroke, as if entirely conscious of its history and implications. 

But both Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire are also attuned to the joys of materiality, and it is this, too, which holds feminist significance. Honing in on dollops of paint and sunlit paper, they suggest an affinity between art and other forms of sensuality: touching, performing, playing. It is in this sense that they highlight the importance of love and collaboration—especially between women—rejecting the ideal of the singular male genius and his passive female muse, instead stressing the importance of creative experiences which have been feminised, and thus denigrated, throughout history. 

In Little Women, the materiality of art is frequently pleasurable, for the audience as well as for Jo. We see her waking up on Christmas Day, the camera shifting to reveal the crumpled script enwrapt in her fingers; we see the floorboards of her attic workroom engulfed by sheets of paper. Both Jo and her work are continuously awash in soft light, as if she is basking in the joy of writing itself. 

In the early stages of the story’s timeline, Jo’s writing also becomes physical via theatre. Performed by her sisters, her work morphs into a participatory project: Amy (Florence Pugh) offers the princess costume she has crafted, Beth (Eliza Scanlen) offers a soundtrack, and they all offer themselves as actors. The result possesses the warm idiosyncrasy of a patchwork quilt and, as Jo brandishes a prop sword, the line between art and play is gleefully blurred. Regardless of Jo’s skill as a writer, this sequence reiterates that she is no solitary genius, and that she is certainly not an artist who dominates others for the sake of her vision. 

Like the March sisters’ play, Jo’s novel is animated by embodied, collective experience. It records the lives of her family members through a group perspective, marked by an awareness of the many ways in which they contributed to the environment in which her work was able to take form. The presence of Jo’s family is embedded into the physicality of the book itself, and this is dramatised in the film’s final scene. As Jo watches the assemblage of her book, these shots are interspersed with images of her walking through the school she has established, tapping her companion (at the conclusion of Gerwig’s adaptation, it is unclear whether this relationship is platonic or romantic) Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) on the back and wrapping her arms around her sisters as she goes. 

The tactile portrayal of the book coming to fruition is thus paralleled by Jo’s gestures as she gathers her family members, and it is when she finally touches the leather bound book that we are transported into a memory of her childhood, one where she holds hands and clashes teacups with her sisters. Artistic creation exists on the same plane as love, touch, and play. Rather than hovering above these things, superior, it is shown to be not just inspired by them, but facilitated by them, an ethos which is also manifested in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, an emphasis on materiality similarly ties art to intimacy: the intimacy which exists not only between Marianne and Héloïse as they become lovers, but through the friendship they share with the estate’s maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). After Héloïse criticises Marianne’s initial painting of her—interpreting it as an image filtered through Marianne’s desire to receive artistic recognition within the (male-led) art world by adhering to convention—visual art is progressively separated from egotism to become something rooted in the body.

When Héloïse asks Marianne to paint Sophie on the night following her abortion, she insists that the ‘private’ (and so frequently demonised) experiences of the body be considered a valuable subject. As Héloïse poses alongside Sophie as the woman healer they saw that day, and as we watch Marianne paint, slowly, in rhythmic increments, portraiture itself becomes a physical event which unites the three women in time and space. 

Similarly, when Marianne completes a self-portrait for Héloïse in Héloïse’s book of Greek myths to keep as a memento, she observes her own face in a mirror cradled between Héloïse’s legs. Intimacy is again extended through art, the couple corporeally entangled with each other as well as with the process of drawing. Earlier in the film, after her and Marianne kiss, Héloïse asks whether “all lovers feel like they are inventing something.” As artmaking becomes a way to both preserve and replicate interactions between bodies, the couple and the audience discover how inextricable love and artistic creation can be. 

Sciamma’s emphasis on the materiality of art is expanded in meaning as it also becomes associated with the relations not just between humans, but between bodies and nature. The film’s trajectory follows not only Marianne and Héloïse’s escalating romance, but also Héloïse’s deepening interactions with the world outside of the convent in which she was raised and the house which her mother forbid her from leaving. We see her ecstatic movements as she is finally able to run with the wind; we see her excitement at discovering what her body will do when it collides with the ocean for the first time. 

This new intimacy is entwined with the intimacy discovered by her and Marianne through art when its objective is not domination. The materiality of the elements and of painting become comparable, as long takes of landscapes and canvases are interspersed with each other. Further, Héloïse’s rapture as she is able to engage substantially with nature is expanded through the artistic process; we observe her wonderment as she swirls a paintbrush in the paint on Marianne’s chaotic palette, encountering a sensation which, when confined to the role of muse, she had also been barred from. It is in these experiences that individual ego is swallowed not only by the freedom of human collaboration, but by the complex delights of Earth, as visualised so beautifully through the titular object, Marianne’s portrait of Héloïse on fire. 

In their films, Gerwig and Sciamma present a fresh perspective of art and its relationship to gender and class. By focussing on materiality, they show us that art is located within a stratified society, but that it also has the transformative potential to bind us with each other and our surroundings. As Amy articulates in Little Women, convincing Jo to see her book about “domestic struggles” as culturally significant, art does not only reflect importance; it confers it. Through their representation of women’s relationships with art, Gerwig and Sciamma insist on the relevance of this to society more broadly. 

Both Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire are period films and, while neither film is biographical, both directors undertook intricate research in order to ground their characters in history. Gerwig achieved this particularly by blurring the boundary between Little Women author Louisa May Alcott and Jo, as Jo’s creation of Little Women mimics Alcott’s experience. Meanwhile, in interviews, Sciamma has made it clear that Marianne’s status as a painter is no mythical exception; there were a number of French women painters practising during the pre-revolutionary period, women whose names seem to have dissipated, excluded from the canon of art history.

Sciamma has also said of her film that she believes it has the capacity to change the world: “We believe that we’re creating the future. We believe the future is a creation of the present time.” In doing so, she suggests that women’s contributions as artists, and the complex stories which accompany these contributions, must seep into cultural memory. Both films seem to be asking their audiences to engage in remembrance, but not the kind of distanced reverence which we might be compelled to feel about the canonical male ‘geniuses’ of history, a reverence which often depends less on personal connection than it does on the obligation to recognise a greatness which is supposedly objective.

The films do not ask for the characters, stories and historical moments they represent to maintain a static, unquestioned permanence in our culture, either. I believe that the kind of remembrance they do ask for—and which Sciamma thinks will change the world—is itself largely material, just as, in Little Women, it is pressed into the pages of Jo’s book, and as it lives on p. 28 of Héloïse’s collection of Greek myths. Perhaps this is also the kind of memory embedded in the battered copies of Little Women which seem to circulate so fluidly, especially among girls and women, gaining meaning from each reader. 

When I reflect on seeing these films, my memories of them seem to be themselves stored in the body. I grinned and laughed and sobbed. Of course, these were collective experiences, and there is always something special about sitting in a dark room among strangers feeling the same beats, sharing pleasure, tension, melancholy. It is this power which makes me believe that Sciamma is right, that just as art is shaped by the world, it can itself change it. 

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Indigo Bailey is an occasional writer and a student at the University of Tasmania, where she is completing a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in English. She enjoys coming of age films and is especially glad to watch ones about girlhood. 

Indigo Bailey