PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE P I C T U R E P I C T U R E P E R F EC T P E R F EC T
French ﬁ lm director Céline Sciamma is ﬁ rmly on the up with her new movie about an 18th-century love story. James Mottram talks to the ﬁ lmmaker and her lead actors about emotions, ideas and criticism 28 THE LIST 1 Feb–31 Mar 2020
F rom its bow in Cannes, winning Best Screenplay, to recent nominations at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, it’s been a remarkable ride for Céline Sciamma’s sublime Portrait of a Lady on Fire. An 18th century- set French-language lesbian love story, about a female painter (Noémie Merlant) and her subject (Adèle Haenel), it’s been feted wherever it’s played. Well, almost. ‘Cahiers du Cinéma gave me zero,’ grumbles Sciamma, when we meet in London. ‘Zero means you’re an enemy. They just despise me.’
While they may have slipped into obscurity, the history of female painters from this era is rich, such as Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun,
The aforementioned French ﬁ lm journal may well not like Sciamma, but there can be no doubt this fourth movie of her career is a major step up. ‘There is something very intricate between ideas and sensuality and emotions in the movie . . . it’s so well balanced,’ says the 31-year-old Haenel, who starred in Sciamma’s 2007 debut Water Lillies. She returns here as Héloïse, a betrothed woman who refuses to sit for a portrait due to be sent to a man she’s never met. Scripted by the 39-year-old Sciamma, the ﬁ lm feels like it belongs in a novel or an historical account, but it came fully formed from her imagination. ‘I wanted to craft a love story from scratch, especially because it’s pretty rare that a period piece is not adapted from a book or historical events,’ she explains. ‘But the fact is, this book hasn’t been written; there is no book to adapt. That’s the whole point actually.’
who painted Marie Antoinette. ‘As they were so numerous, I wanted to invent one to talk about all of them,’ says Sciamma. Her tale sees Merlant’s painter Marianne instructed by Héloïse’s mother to befriend and secretly sketch her daughter, before feelings unwittingly spark between them. Arriving in the era of gender equality and #MeToo, Portrait of a Lady on Fire throws off the shackles of period drama to feel
man, because it’s an experience that only women can live,’ says Merlant. ‘It’s about the oppressed sex. It’s a woman’s story with a woman’s vision. If it would have been made by a man, it would be signiﬁ cantly different.’
Sciamma claims it was not her intention to craft a ‘feminist gaze manifesto’. But much like her 2014 all-female urban drama Girlhood, she naturally gravitates towards stories from
that are accurate utterly modern, despite the use of luminous natural lighting and costumes to the time. ‘I think the movie asks questions that are not often asked,’ adds Haenel. ‘It’s very serious about its ideas. But it’s also joyful and gives space to imagination.’ Filmed along the stormy Brittany coastline, could Portrait have been made by a male director? ‘I don’t think it can be made by a
the a woman’s perspective. Nor is she apologetic about idea that her story portrays a female utopia, something that doubtless annoyed Cahiers du Cinéma. ‘I’ve experienced sometimes, in my life, a world without men,’ she smiles. It’s a new world order.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is on general release from Fri 28 Feb. See review, page 69.