Souad Hosny was in a blue negligee. She wanted that older painter to sense the sensuality of her presence.
With the young woman alone with him in that secluded villa in a distant suburb of Alexandria, power seemed to reside with the older man. She came to him seeking more than a shelter; she wanted a refuge for her soul. But the author did not leave her in front of us a mono-dimensional character: weak, in need, and reliant on that much older man. Immediately, we sensed, from the very early chats between them, that once she entered the villa, and his life, she wanted, demanded, equality.
At the surface, we see a classic dynamic: the older man as the provider, assuming the role of the guide, imparting advices, and as the discussions between them progress, beginning to analyse her, to herself. We are given a picture in which he embodies authority, in which he holds all power.
But there is an undercurrent. She sought warmth, but she also wants to give warmth. Her demand for equality does not stem from a crying ego, does not stem from foolish youthfulness. It comes from a dignified soul that knows that she has a lot to give, and that without giving, she does not grow.
Her challenging of his authority becomes a struggle, not just for equality with him, but for helping him, as much as it is for achieving the growth potential she knows she has. Her challenging of his authority becomes a way of achieving unity, within herself as well as with him. Whereas the older painter tries to analyse her, supposedly for her benefit, while he leaves himself out of the picture, she does the opposite. She opens herself up to him so as to excoriate her demons as well as to release her angels. The former act saves herself; the latter could save him.
Suddenly, by shifting the perspective of the film, from the elderly painter to the young muse, the writer and the director shift the power dynamic, even though still no tangible changes took place. We see the painter resisting, the muse insisting.
Sex here is a channel as much as it is a tool. As always, the man’s want is primarily internal. The water either overpowers the dam, or finds ways around it. And as always, there is immense pleasure in the flow, in the succumbing. Part of the pleasure is physical, another, that resides in his psyche, is the letting-go of a tired fighter throwing away his armour.
The letting go happens in his mind first of all. And immediately, it manifests itself in how he looks at her, in his tone as he speaks to her. But the writer here is deeper than those who would have exploited the moment just to alter the power dynamic. What we (the audience) see unfolds in front of us is a shift in the perspective with which we see love. For, in the beginning, the authority of the older man was a form of love that is seeking assertively to impart on the young woman his intellectual wisdom. Now, we see her power as another expression of love seeking, tenderly, to impart on him her (matter-full) wisdom.
Other authors visited this dynamic in other works of art. Rarely, however, we have the narrative controlled by the woman. Celia Paul does that in “Self-Portrait”. As the teenager who got involved with the celebrated painter Lucian Freud, who was then in his mid-fifties, and who remained in that relationship for a decade, Celia knows firsthand the dynamic of shifting power with a man full of authority, full of experiences, and yet still in a colossal need of love. Despite that, her book is not revelatory about the famous artist. Her book is almost totally about her, and this is its value. Celia makes us think how she was transformed in the decade of her relationship with Freud from a young woman posing naked, feeling in need of his attention and admiration and subtly his approval, to the one who would grow to hold the brush herself, and whose wants and thoughts became the agenda of the interaction with the older man. She recounts to us the journey from being a subject in his world to being her “own subject”.
“Self-Portrait” is a valuable contribution to the age-old topic of inner growth. It pours fresh water into the stream of: the myriad expressions of love – and how it can evolve a soul from aspiring to inspiring to shaping a new inspiration.