Writers & Company

French filmmaker Céline Sciamma on looking, longing and falling in love in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Sciamma spoke with Eleanor Wachtel during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival about exploring forbidden love and the concept of the gaze through cinema.
In 2019, French screenwriter and film director Céline Sciamma was interviewed by CBC Radio's Eleanor Wachtel during the Toronto International Film Festival. (Katy Swailes/CBC)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the remarkable new film from French director Céline Sciamma, hits theatres in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver on February 14, 2020, and in the rest of Canada on February 21. 

A powerful love story set in 18th century Brittany, the movie focuses on an unexpected romance between a woman artist and the young bride-to-be she is hired to paint. It has been captivating audiences and critics alike since its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019, where it won best screenplay and the Queer Palm prize.

Sciamma is also known for her sensitive and timely coming-of-age films. Water Lilies screened at Cannes in 2007 and won the Louis-Delluc Award for best first film. Tomboy, about a 10-year-old girl who pretends to be a boy, won a jury prize at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival. And Girlhood, which focuses on the lives of black girls in a Paris housing estate, was a special feature at Cannes in 2014 and received international acclaim. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire was a hit at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, where it had its North American debut. Sciamma spoke to Eleanor Wachtel during the festival. 

A time for love

"I consider my first three films a trilogy and I was finished with discussing the topic of teenagehood and coming of age. I had new desires. I am older now and have experienced other things in life and wanted to talk about them. I wanted to write a love story.

I wanted to create a film that would look patiently and carefully at how love is born.

"I wanted to create a film that would look patiently and carefully at how love is born — in the present, feeling its rhythm and urgency — but also one that would look at the memory of a love story to examine the philosophy and politics of love. I also wanted to work with actress Adèle Haenel again — she had been in my 2007 film Water Lilies — and so I wrote the film with her in mind. I also wanted to talk about women artists because I now have a bit of expertise around that."

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. (Lilies Films/imdb.com)

A history of women in art

"I wanted to talk about how, at that time in history, there were a lot of female painters. I hadn't known that fact. There were hundreds of them in Europe including Marie Antoinette's official painter Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun of France, Angelica Kauffman from England and Artemisia Gentileschi from Italy. 

"There were even female art critics. When I discovered that, I was amazed. I decided to create a fictional female painter based on these historical facts. I wanted to talk about women artists but I wanted to depart from the biopic dynamic, that trope where a strong woman succeeds in a very oppressive world. This idea that 'it can happen if you want.' 

I'm a woman director and my movies are shown all around the world. I embody the fact that it is possible.

"I'm a woman director and my movies are shown all around the world. I embody the fact that it is possible and sometimes I can collaborate within a system that oppresses women. So I wanted to show a female artist at work in her everyday craft.

"We don't know if she's a great artist or not. It's not about destiny. It's about a very special moment in creation and this particular moment in life that will definitely change her."

The ever-evolving gaze

"The dramaturgy of the film is about the evolution of the gaze and what it's like to look at somebody. The artist in the film, Marianne, has to paint a portrait of reluctant bride-to-be Héloïse in secret because she refuses to pose or to be looked at. Looking at Héloïse and discovering her face becomes a goal — and then there's mutual looks and consent. 

The dramaturgy of the film is about the evolution of the gaze and what it's like to look at somebody.

"I wanted to have this suspense around the gaze and how Héloïse goes from an object to a subject. Haenel portrays this in a committed way. She actually worked on different stages of the character, different stages in her attitude and the way she uses a face and a voice. In the first half of the film, Haenel uses her face as a mask — knowing that she's an object — to protect herself from the gaze by not giving anything to the world. That's the only way she can resist." 

Céline Sciamma's comments have been edited for length and clarity.


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