q&a

The Women Behind Portrait of a Lady on Fire Believe Their Movie Can Save the World

Director Céline Sciamma and stars Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant debate the power of a lesbian period drama. Photo: Courtesy of Lilies Films

If the words “tragically romantic French lesbian period drama” do not immediately inspire you to run to the theaters, perhaps the words “the best tragically romantic French lesbian period drama I’ve ever seen that essentially ruined my life for three solid days” will. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Girlhood’s Céline Sciamma and starring Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant, took Cannes and TIFF by storm this year, garnering Best Screenplay and the Queer Palm at Cannes, standing ovations at both fests, glowing reviews, and the sort of prerelease buzz you can’t buy. Believe the hype: The film is beautiful and shattering, a paean to the female gaze that’s shot by women, directed by a woman, and starring almost exclusively women. It’s the sort of movie that you can’t shake: You’ll never look at a rocky beach, an armpit, or a book’s 28th page the same way again.

Portrait, which is Sciamma and Haenel’s second collaboration (the pair also dated for years but seem to have recently broken up), centers on the burgeoning relationship between an 18th-century painter named Marianne (Merlant) and the noblewoman, Héloïse (Haenel), she’s hired to paint. The catch is that Héloïse can’t know that Marianne’s painting her; the work of art will be shipped off to a suitor in Milan once it’s done, and Héloïse’s mother knows her daughter doesn’t want to be married off and won’t agree to sit for the occasion. Instead, Marianne must pretend to be Héloïse’s walking companion, sneaking glimpses of her subject to recreate later. The two share a series of quiet, loaded beach strolls, which eventually become fraught with sensual tension and feelings unspoken. Their love story is almost secondary to the film’s fixation on the act of looking, of really seeing another person, both literally and figuratively.

A few months ahead of Portrait’s wide release on Valentine’s Day, we met up with Sciamma, Haenel, and Merlant in a Manhattan hotel room, where all three looked incredibly French in a series of sleek trench coats, a new pixie cut (for Merlant, a bit quieter than her counterparts), and knee-high equestrian boots. The conversation took a turn toward the profound almost immediately, and the natural, finishing-each-other’s-sentences chemistry between the three of them offscreen was completely delightful to behold.

This movie crushed me. I walked around for days, so sad. Did you anticipate that reaction?
All three: [Laugh.]

Sciamma: You can’t anticipate the reaction. But it’s part of the project to think about the audience as a group. We’re trying to create a very active viewer, and to put you in a different position. We have a project for you, you know? It’s not that you anticipate that there’s going to be a strong response, but I am thinking about the response when crafting the film.

What specifically were you thinking about?
Sciamma: The emotional journey. Creating a new pace, a new rhythm. A new experience for the viewer, with this slow burn. We have this very radical language in the film, and my dream is always that the viewer loves the language and starts to speak the language of the film. Part of the pleasure, part of the excitement, is being part of the brain of the film. Getting it, and having this joy, speaking its language. It becomes this new tongue.

I’m curious what it felt like for all of you at Cannes — to take in that first wave of major appreciation, and then being the first woman to ever win the Queer Palm.
Haenel: It was a bliss.

Sciamma: That’s your new word.

Haenel: That’s my new word! When we did the movie — the process of the creation of the movie — there’s something naked in it. We are not sheltered by habitude. How do you say it?

Sciamma: Habits.

Haenel: Right. We’re not sheltered by cinema cliché. We’re trying to create something very, very new. Both the fact that it’s naked — I don’t know how to say it differently, but it’s like, we’re not pretending to be something else or somebody else for you to love us. We’re just trying to create something new that is revolutionary, but that doesn’t have the outfit of a revolution. In this way, it’s weak. But it’s not weak. Because we strongly believe [in what] we’re doing … [to Merlant] Why are you laughing?

Sciamma: She loves that that’s how you respond to, “So, how was Cannes?”

It’s great!
Sciamma: No, of course it’s great. It’s so much joy.

Haenel: With the audience in Cannes, it was like, oh, we were accurate with our nudity. Because our people felt … and when I say “our people,” I’m talking about a lot of women — they felt like, oh, thank you for being that open. You trusted us and you answered questions we didn’t even dare to ask. There was a relief in the audience that we could feel, and what was really moving was the fact that the movie itself creates a big wave. There’s a lot of love around this movie, which is … a bliss. [All three laugh.] 

But when we entered the room, there was already a warm welcome. Because this is Céline’s fourth film, I think she’s created something — a relationship to her audience. The audience now supports her work. There’s an exchange of love. And it’s not flat. It’s very dynamic. We’re creating something, and the audience has a responsibility in it, too. Taking the movie and then trying to change the world after that. [Laughs.] No big deal.

Sciamma: No, for real, for real. I think it can, and I think it will. I think movies, I think art, can change the world. Otherwise, why [do it]? We believe that we’re creating the future. We believe the future is a creation of the present time. There’s a lot of reactionary forces in the current time that say, “The future will be darker,” but we are, also in the present time, a positive force creating the future, saying, “Oh, this can happen, and because it can happen, it will happen.” This is our responsibility as artists.

So, Cannes was good! [Laughs.] 

Is this something you discussed while making the film, the idea that it could change the world?
Sciamma: Sometimes. I think I said it once, really. The third day of shooting, shooting the scene on the beach where Marianne finds Héloïse and cries and says, “Your mother’s coming back,” and they kiss. Suddenly, it’s this big, emotional thing. And the fourth take was like, wow. I called “cut” and I turned to my DP and I told her, “We are saving the world.” And she said, “We are saving the world.” And that was the first time we said it. Sometimes we said it as a joke, like, “Are we saving the world?” It was mostly a joke. But, of course, images and culture can change culture.

[Merlant looks slightly skeptical.]

Haenel: Why not? I mean, Noemie, why not?

Sciamma: It’s not pretentious. It’s actually modest. It’s not about saying, “We have this power.” It’s about believing in the power of culture and cinema. It’s not believing in our power, it’s believing in the power of what we do. Which I do. Maybe you’re gonna be important for, I don’t know, several hundred thousand people. But that’s a lot. If it was a cult, it would be very successful.

I would start this cult with you. So why this specific story? Why this specific setting and time period? Where’d these ideas come from for you?
Sciamma: It was about art history, mostly. I wanted the Vivaldi [“Four Seasons” is played during a significant scene]. I wanted women painters. There were a lot of women painters at the time [the late 18th century] — hundreds of them … It became more and more accurate, in terms of this particular date, 1770, because it’s before the French Revolution, before this very strong artistic feminine scene, feminine art critics. It felt legitimate to be telling this story at that time, and we could do very accurate research and not be fantasizing about something.

So it felt true to invent [a painter] based on accurate research and sociology. Whereas, otherwise, we could be in the dynamic of a biopic, trying to tell the destiny of a particular woman, which I didn’t want to do. Those are always about strong women.

Haenel: “You can make it if you want!”

Sciamma: Right. “You can make it if you want in this hard world!” They keep asking us to do this, so that’s why we shouldn’t. You know?

Haenel: Because we’re not saving ourselves. We’re saving the world.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by that— they keep asking you to make movies about strong women?
Sciamma: Nobody is asking that literally. Nobody asks me anything! I’m in France and nobody is asking me. But it’s more the executive, or Netflix saying to French others, or even French TV — “We’re looking for strong women.” I just want to take off “strong” and just do “woman character.” What could be a “weak woman character”? What would it be?

Haenel: This is why we’re creating the future. Nowadays, the producer or the project is a bit more more concerned about, “Oh, maybe this person shouldn’t just be an object, she can be the subject, as a woman.” So it’s more common now. But there’s a way to stop halfway, and just say, “Oh, we’re going to do a strong woman character that fights the world and makes it!” This is the problem. When you’re portraying that, you’re in a way, saying, “Oh, actually, the world is okay. If you want, you can make it!” To me, it’s violent to say that. It’s super that there are women superheroes, we need that. But to me, it’s a stop halfway. You are trying to say, “Okay, this world is bad, but not that bad. You can exist if you want.” It becomes not political, and tells you that you can be self-made.

But we’re more deep into the critical here, in our movie. The movie itself is political. It says, “This is a possible love. We know how to love. When we are together, we know how to fit, how to love, how to laugh.” But we’re all aware in the audience that this possibility is made impossible because of patriarchy. I’m sorry to say that word, but. For real. There’s a suspension in the movie. The impossible is at the border of the movie. We know that this can only be for two months, three months. Because once you dive into the world, you can’t live like that.

Sciamma: The question we have from the old culture, and the old world, is, like, “Why do they not end up together?” And I’m like, no, this is not respecting the lives of these women. To make them even think, maybe we could escape. Once you actually play with the idea of this conflict and this resolution — that’s why sometimes they make people die [in period movies]. That’s why there was no room on that door for Jack. Because otherwise they would have to put up with that. Nobody’s gonna die in our movie, but we have to respect the fact that it’s not possible [for them to be together]. It’s a new kind of story.

Photo: Courtesy of Lilies Films

Talk to me about when you, Adèle and Noémie, first met, and how you developed this intense, natural chemistry we see onscreen.
Merlant: I first met Céline at the audition. She actually had me read the part of Héloïse. So that was — I remember her gaze, actually. I remember this strong, concentrated, intense and really kind look. I already felt what was in the story, and what was in the shooting — this environment of kindness and work and sharing. And then I met Adèle in the second step of the audition. She was intense — really intense. [All laugh.] I was a little bit like, Okay, now I’m gonna meet Adèle. I’ve seen her in a lot of movies, how’s she gonna be? And she was really so joyful. I remember she was jumping, and coming up to me with some jumps.

Sciamma: She’s happy!

Merlant: It was cool. I was like, a little bit stressed, and then I thought, This is gonna be cool. We worked on the audition and I felt in a nice environment at that moment. After that, we didn’t see each other again to rehearse, and I think that was good. It was interesting, because we had to build our relationship, of Marianne and Héloïse, in the present moment, as we were starting to build our relationship, Adèle and me and Céline. It was new and interesting to use the reality, and to put it a little bit into the movie, too.

So you built those relationships simultaneously on purpose?
Sciamma: We didn’t even talk about rehearsal. We had the costumes — the fact that you’re creating the costumes gives you a lot of meaning. And the hairstyles. So we’d meet, see each other by shaping the silhouettes and the looks of the character.

Merlant: And finding things out about the paintings. How they looked, how to move [when painting], and everything.

Sciamma: We created the imagination of the film and the characters with concrete materials. We hadn’t seen Noémie play — I’d seen her in the audition, but that was it. The first time I called action, I was like, Okay, this is a leap! It’s a leap of faith. And it’s beautiful. I really recommend it. Because you can’t be reassured. So maybe you should be really confident and scared at the same time [and] you’ll discover everything while shooting.

That really comes across in the movie. It feels like we’re seeing it unfold in real time. Were either of you nervous about the extreme vulnerability of playing these characters, both physically and emotionally? Is that what was stressing you out, Noémie? There’s nowhere to hide in this movie.
Haenel: I don’t know! That’s a great answer. [Laughs.] What they just said about not rehearsing — to me, I have the feeling that if I can avoid, I will avoid. If I cannot do it, I will not do it. Which means I need the pressure. I need the fact that there’s no way you can run away from the set. It’s something to do with shame. Something to do with being ashamed. This is a bit weird, I know. But I have the feeling that it’s an important component of acting. Trying to face the shame of yourself.

What makes it a bit less intense is the fact that we’re together, we’re a team …

Merlant: When I think about what you said about vulnerability, in this movie, really for the first time, I had this feeling telling me — you [nods at Céline] didn’t tell me, but it’s what I felt like — sort of to do nothing. Not nothing, but just connect and not hide yourself behind an emotion. As an actor, you try and show and show and show, and sometimes that’s not the point. When you’re in the moment and you just try to find details, and just feel the details … I don’t know how to explain this — to fill in, and to hold back things. That was really something.

I want to talk about the gaze that you mentioned. The gaze is the biggest part of the movie — women looking at each other, women painting each other, you filming these women. How did you see the gaze informing the sex scene, specifically? Why did you show what you decided to show and what kind of conversations did you have about it?
Sciamma: There was this erotic tension that goes everywhere, even in the beginning. We know that we have the appetite for this love story. It was about rhythm and breathing. There’s just one scene where we talk about sex — two, actually, but one where they’re naked — and the sex scene with the armpit and the drugs. This is an “official sex scene,” too.

Haenel: That was so fun.

Sciamma: It’s like cracking a joke. And I had this idea for a very, very long time.

The armpit?
Sciamma: Yeah. That’s why I decided to put the drugs in there, and everything. It was written that way. Those scenes, I hold them in my mind. So I arrive on the set that day, and I’m like, “It’s gonna be that close, and it’s gonna be this part.” And then it was like, “Ahh!” Everybody’s laughing [on set] — because of course I didn’t say it would [look vaginal]. Suddenly, people are blushing, in a way. I’m like, Okay, this is happening, this is gonna be so funny onscreen. And it was. It should be.

Haenel: It’s also very relevant because it speaks about the way we collaborated … Sex scenes are usually the ones where actors and actresses are very stressed. People running after you with un peignoir

Sciamma: A bathrobe.

Haenel: Like, “Oh, she’s gonna be naked!” It’s stressful and always at a certain moment of the shooting, there’s a feeling that something is stolen from you. You’re used in a way that you don’t want to be, but you have to. We were sheltered by an idea; Céline has a very precise idea of what sex can be, and it’s easy for us. We are not stolen. We are collaborators.

Speaking of collaborating, you both have worked together on and off for something like 15 years —
Sciamma: Twelve. We are old people.

How did that dynamic feed into this movie?
Sciamma: For us, it’s like, we have had that conversation for years. Now it’s not about having that conversation between us, it’s about expanding it and having it with others.

Haenel: If it brings anything, it’s our mutual autonomy. We rely on each other. I trust what she does, she trusts what I do.

Even just sitting here, you two seem to have a shared language. You’re communicating a lot with your eyes. Does it feel that way to you? Or to you, Noémie?
Sciamma: We share some stuff.

Haenel: Yeah. [Laughs.]

I want to talk about that final scene, where the camera rests on Adèle for a long time and we watch her slowly come undone. How did you go about creating that moment?
Haenel: I can’t really describe it, but I can say that my state of mind was very focused. It’s like people who ski jump, before they jump. That was my state of mind. I knew there was a journey that we talked about with Céline, several doors I should go through, but other than that it was all about a feeling of rhythm. It was about high concentration and being disponible —

Sciamma: Available.

Haenel: — for the present time.

What do you hope that shot leaves the audience with?
Sciamma: Themselves.

Whoa.
Sciamma: It’s cinema, and it unveils itself as cinema. It’s a reverse shot between the two characters. And at that point, it’s not about the story anymore. It’s about you being in your seat, her being in her theater seat, and you watching. First you’re watching Héloïse, and then you’re watching Adèle Haenel performing, and then you’re watching a film ending, with room for your own love, because you connect with the journey of emotion. And you think, Oh, it’s sad, but suddenly, she lightens. She smiles. And maybe you reconsider your own past love.

During one scene, the two women take drugs by rubbing them into each other’s armpits, which takes on a cheekily suggestive secondary visual meaning.
Can Portrait of a Lady on Fire Save the World?