My experience talking with directors leads me to informally sort them into three categories based on what element of their work they can speak most eloquently about: theory, emotion, and technical execution. Few have straddled all aspects of the filmmaking process quite like French writer-director Céline Sciamma, the mind and muscle behind Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She’s able to deftly answer questions that address the end-to-end process of how a moment germinates in her head, how an audience will interpret it, and how theory can explain why they feel the way they do.
Sciamma’s latest directorial outing relegates her minimalism primarily to the screenplay, which revolves around the interactions between a painter, Noémie Merlant’s Marianne, and the subject, Adèle Haenel’s Héloïse, that she’s been commissioned to covertly paint. The deceptively simple contours of Portrait of a Lady on Fire belie the ambition of the film, which sets out to achieve nothing less than a complete deconstruction of the artist-muse relationship. What Sciamma proposes in its place is a love story between the two women rooted in equality and artistry rather than in domination and lust.
I spoke with Sciamma after the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival in September. Our talk ranged from the personal to the political, her singular work to the cinema at large, our present moment’s liberation to the centuries of patriarchal influence over our shared historical narrative. In short, a full spectrum of conversation that few directors can match.
You’ve placed Portrait of a Lady on Fire in conversation with discourse around the subject of muses. Does the film suggest that we need to dispense with this ideal altogether, or that we just need to update and revise our notions of what it means?
Well, it’s a contemporary conversation, and even though the movie’s set in the past, it definitely could be something that could have been set in 2019. It’s been a long [journey] for me, because it’s been five years from my previous film, and I thought about this for years. Within these five years, a lot happened. [The time] gave me confidence and new tools and ideas—also less loneliness—to be radical and without compromise. It gives you strength and structure to be radical with all the ideas. The movie is full of them.
Women artists have always existed. They’ve had more flourishing moments, like that time in the mid-18th century when there were a lot of women painters. That’s why we set [the film] in that period, of course, but mostly women were in the workshop as models or companions. That was their part in artistry, so that’s how they’re told [in cultural narratives]. The real part they took in creation isn’t told. Something is happening in art history because there are women researchers on the other side. Dora Maar was the muse of Picasso, but actually, she was a part of the Surrealist group. There’s a lot of them we know now. It was a way to tell the story again to reactivate this nature of art history. But I’m sure it’s true; it’s not this anachronistic vision.
You hired an “art sociologist” to help develop Portrait of a Lady on Fire. What did you learn from this person, and how did that affect the film?
It was a woman who [studied] that period when there were a lot of women painters. The fact that she’s a sociologist and not a historian actually was really important for me because, as we were inventing this character, sociology was really important to make her true to all of these women. Whereas if we’d picked [one historical figure], it would be about destiny. She read the script, and [determined that] there were no anachronisms. What I learned is that it gave me confidence to trust this character all the way. It was something I could hand to Noémie on set.
Is the notion of the “muse” inherently incompatible with equality?
The fact that you could be inspiring just by being there, beautiful and silent, there’s definitely domination. The fact that it’s told as something that always has to do with [being] in a relationship, even the love in creation in the muse—you have to fall in love with your actresses or models—is a fantasy that allows abuse of power. Even the possessive, sometimes I’m asked about my actresses. They’re not asked about their directors; they’re asked about the director.
When I wrote the part for Adèle, she was the model. When I talked about the film, and not much because I’m very secretive, people told me, “So, Adèle’s going to be the painter?” And I said, “No, Adèle is going to be the model!” People were like, “Why? She should be the painter.” And I was like, “Oh, so you find that the model is too narrow for her? You find that this isn’t the dynamic of power she’s entitled to. She should be the painter.” She and I laughed and thought, “Of course, [Adèle] should be the model because I’m the actress.” So, what are they saying? That it’s too small for her? That was also very nourishing, the idea today that she shouldn’t be in that position. It would be a weak position. And it isn’t.
I was surprised to learn that you didn’t write Marianne’s character from the start as someone assigned to paint Héloïse covertly. What did that discovery in the writing process unlock in the story for you?
When I got the idea, I was like, “Now the movie’s got a chance.” The movie is very full of ideas and has some theory of cinema, but that’s why it should be strongly dramatically charged. The fact that we embodied these problematic [ideas] really is important. The journey of the gaze, the fact that it’s stolen at first, then consensual, then mutual, then…we don’t even know who’s looking at who. It makes it really physical and organic. And also, it’s true that all my films are [thematically] bound with a character having a secret. Usually it lasts until the end, but this time it’s only half an hour of being secretive. The secret becomes this reservoir of what’s going to be said and what’s going to unfold, which felt different.
Unlike Tomboy, where schoolyard bullies embody the antagonistic forces of transphobia and heteronormativity, the villain in Portrait of a Lady on Fire seems to be time and the reality of Héloïse’s marriage on the horizon. Was this always your intent to write a story with a more abstract foe?
Yeah, because I really wanted not to go through the same negotiations and conflicts. I wanted it to be a new journey for the audience. Their love dialogue relies on a new ideal that’s equality. There’s no gender domination because they’re two women. That’s practical. But there’s no intellectual domination. We didn’t play with social hierarchy, either. We know their love is impossible, but we aren’t going to play with that. We aren’t going to try and project them into the future. Some people, the old culture, wants you to do that. Show the taboo, the impossibility, the struggle, the conflict with yourself. And we didn’t want to do that.
Because it’s about what you put in the frame. We’re just looking at what’s possible, that suspension of time, and we know very well the frame. We don’t have to tell you the prospects for these women, especially because it’s set in the past. They’re shitty. Lousy. We’re not going to waste time and put you in that position where you will go through this conflict to tell the same thing, that it’s impossible. The real tragedy is that it is possible, but it’s made impossible—by the world of men, mostly. That’s also why there are no men in the film. It would mean portraying a character whose sole purpose is to be the enemy, which isn’t something that interests me at all. I don’t need to take time to portray that. It’s not generous enough.
Are we to take the shot of Héloise on fire literally? That scene seems to enter such a representational, abstract realm, and then we’re jolted back into the reality of her walks with Marianne with that match cut of her extending a hand.
That [says] a lot about the film. It wants to be very embodied in a very simple but kind of brave [way], not just purely theoretical. She’s really going to be on fire! That was one of the key scenes I had in mind as the compass of the film. If you’re really setting her on fire, you’re setting the bar for the other scenes. They have to be in dialogue with this [moment]. It shouldn’t be this unique thing out of the whole language of the film.
I was so struck by the shot toward the end of the film where Marianne sketches herself in a mirror placed over Héloïse’s nether regions. It’s a masterly composition that also feels like a real thematic lynchpin. Can you describe both how the shot developed intellectually and how you executed it on set?
It’s about where you put the focus. In the mirror, she’s blurry. It’s about trust, about being playful, about going all the way with your ideas. But also, it’s fun. It’s a fun thing to do. Even the difficulty of it makes you think about cinema and how we’re going to do this. It’s a way to always be woke about your craft and having new challenges, solving old questions with new ideas. Really trying to harvest most of the situation of people looking at each other. It’s a very simple [way to] access ideas. She’s portraying herself with this mirror, this woman is naked, and her head is where her sex is. It’s really overt, so you don’t have to think about it. But, still, it’s this idea that’s given to you through a sensation. It should always be about this, I think.
I didn’t think it would be possible to top something like the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood, but here you have a three-minute scene that features Adèle Haenel reacting to music. How do you go about shooting these scenes in a way that allows the audience to understand the impact the music has on the characters?
For Girlhood, I really tried to think of [the scene] as if it were a scene in a musical. When they start to sing in a musical, [they’re] very strong moments within the characters’ relationships. They’re saying things to each other, and, if they’re dancing, their bodies are expressing themselves. It’s about the music not being the commentary, but really thinking about it like, “Okay, if there was a Fred Astaire film, when would this thing happen? What would it say?” It’s always about the intimacy between the characters and what their bodies can express.
But this is kind of different because it’s the final scene. It unveils the fact that it’s cinema. It’s a shot-reverse shot. At first, you’re looking at Héloïse and Marianne looking at Héloïse. But, at some point, it’s about you the audience looking at Adèle performing. It’s about cinema. It leaves room for you. It’s the same in the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood; it doesn’t become a clip if suddenly there’s room for the viewer. When we talk about the female gaze, of course it’s about not objectifying women, it’s also about mostly how you experience the journey of the character. You experience it with your body and mind. You’re fully aware. It’s not about you being fully inside the film; it’s about the film being inside you. I think that’s what we can offer.
You’ve talked about needing to develop a new grammar to tell the story of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Now that you have developed it, do you think it will be applicable to other films? Or will you have to reinvent the wheel again?
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is my fourth film, and it felt like a departure. But it’s also a growing of a lot of decisions and myself as a 40-year-old woman. So next time, I never know what I’m going to do next. I really feel like I’ve said all I have to say right now. I feel relieved of something also. And now that we are having this discussion around the film, it puts it in the world. It’s something we share. When you craft a film, it’s really your secret for so long. Now I feel like I’m going to have to find a new secret for myself.