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Portrait of a Lady on Fire director Céline Sciamma on her ravishing romantic masterpiece

“Titanic is the hugest success, and it’s because it’s totally queer,” says the French filmmaker.

Heloise and Marianne fall in love just in time to be parted.
Héloïse and Marianne comfort each other with the rolling sea behind them.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Few movies have ever hit me as hard as Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the new film from French director Céline Sciamma. (Read my review here.)

Sciamma’s unique talent for capturing the lives of women who are rarely placed at the center of cinematic stories might not seem to be a particularly strong fit for a period piece about an aristocratic woman dreading her impending marriage. But in the story of the budding romance between Héloïse (the aforementioned aristocrat) and Marianne (the woman who will paint her portrait), Sciamma found a way to talk about so much of the history that usually is left on the cutting room floor, of the women and queer people of the past who are too often pushed to the edges of the stories we tell about times long gone.

The movie is quietly radical in its gender and class politics, but it’s also wholly approachable. At one point when we spoke, Sciamma said she thought a lot about the movie Titanic while making her own film, and it shows. This is a classic love story, but one that hides considerable political depths.

It’s also quietly radical in the way it uses digital cameras to depict the past, allowing for the capturing of images in lower light levels than would have been possible with more traditional methods. Whole scenes are lit seemingly entirely by fireplaces or candles, and Sciamma’s camera crew had to invent new methods of lighting scenes just to get the images the director wanted.

There’s lots to talk about with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which is why I was so glad to speak with Sciamma when she visited Los Angeles (for the first time ever, she said) to attend the Golden Globes. (Portrait was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film there but lost to Parasite.) Our conversation ranged all over the map, from lighting rigs to Greek myths. It’s been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The BAFTA Los Angeles Tea Party - Arrivals
Céline Sciamma (center) attends the BAFTA Tea Party with Portrait of a Lady on Fire stars Adèle Haenel (left) and Noémie Merlant.
Amy Sussman/Getty Images for BAFTA LA

Emily VanDerWerff

This movie is so good at using the camera to relay the ways that women watch each other, or the way they look at things they want. I haven’t seen a movie capture that in quite the way this one does. How did you build that into the film at every level?

Céline Sciamma

I see [the movie] as a manifesto about the female gaze. I see this as such a strong opportunity to make new stuff, new images, new narratives. They are such powerful images, and they are so not seen. And you are in charge. You have a strong responsibility. But also, there are so many opportunities to be playful. To embody ideas that matter a lot to myself, but also to a lot of people. I see it as a really great dynamic for creating and also very fun visually.

For instance, ask yourself the question of “how do you embody sorority?” The answer being, a long take, a wide shot, of three women in the kitchen with social hierarchy being totally turned around, with the aristocratic women cooking, whereas the maid is an artist and the artist is looking at the maid. And they’re silent. This is such a powerful image, and it’s so easy to make.

People are telling me, “Oh, your film is a utopia.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but our utopias are not ideas we have in our minds. They’re not things we wish we were living. They’re rooted in our own experience.” I know about sorority, I know about an all-women world. It’s not a utopia. It’s part of my life. And that’s what I rely on to make these images.

Emily VanDerWerff

This movie is also about how the female gaze produces art and the way a woman who is an artist perceives the world. How true was that to your own experience as a woman artist?

Céline Sciamma

It is close. It’s also a portrait of women artists in general, because I did a lot of research on this period. I chose this moment of art history because there were hundreds of women painters at the time that had flourishing careers. We’re always being told about women’s progress and women’s opportunity — that we’re “getting there.” But it’s not true. It’s cycles. And we can see it today that we experience backlash also. And they did also, at the time. There was a strong female critic scene that we never hear about. And they were looking at women’s body of work more than their male colleagues were, for instance.

The film is a love story, but it’s also about creating. That’s why I decided to depart from the biopic dynamic, which is always about this strong portrait of a strong woman and I think this is politically not good. It’s very liberal. It’s about, “Oh, you can make it in this hard world!” And strong women — what’s “strong”? I wanted to invent [a woman] to talk about [all women] and not have this heroic dynamic. It’s not about her body of work. It’s about an artist’s work, her questions, her difficulties, and her success within one frame. It’s not about a destiny. That was really important for me, to show somebody at work.

Heloise’s dress catches on fire in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Here’s the lady on fire you’ve heard so much about.

Emily VanDerWerff

What do you think is powerful about examining the historical limitations placed on women and queer people? There are certainly lots of critics and artists who want to create narratives of empowerment, and those can be great. But I sometimes love stories like this, about the limitations that can be placed on us, even more. Héloïse’s mother can basically tell her who to marry, for example.

Céline Sciamma

Héloïse’s character is much more restrained, even though she is an aristocratic woman, than Marianne’s character. The tragedy of lesbian life is not the tragedy of lesbian representation. It’s not the same. Lesbians have been activists. They’ve had the opportunity to live their life more freely sometimes, than straight women, because they could avoid a lot of things, like getting married and having children.

If you look at the suffragettes, for instance, lesbians were there. The tragedy is that we get erased from history. But we are activists and sometimes more in the position to be. They talk about that in the movie. Marianne [who can live more openly] seems to have more opportunity than Héloïse.

These stories are really dangerous for patriarchy. That’s why the male gaze is obsessed with representing lesbians, for instance. It’s a way to control it. Our stories are powerful because they are dangerous. We are dangerous. So it’s a very good strategy to despise us — to undermine us — because it’s giving us less leverage for a very powerful political dynamic.

The narrative of the film is based on equality among the love story, because there is no gender domination. Embodying equality in a love dialogue could be a wake-up call for a lot of persons. That’s why it’s so important to tell stories. It’s to represent us, so a lot of people feel seen. And the film is about that mutual gazing. But it politically involves much more than our stories.

Emily VanDerWerff

When you see the man sitting at the table late in the film, after having spent so long with only women, it’s such a shocking moment.

Céline Sciamma

Yeah, it’s a jump scare of patriarchy. Like, they look like that. We forget how they look. [laughs]

Sophie and Marianne discuss whether Sophie should have an abortion.
Sophie (left) and Marianne form an unlikely friendship.

Emily VanDerWerff

I’ve been wondering how you captured some of those shots in such low light. Was it shot digitally?

Céline Sciamma

Yeah. It was a very strong choice to shoot in digital, especially with a period piece. We tried 35 [millimeter film]. When we did the tryouts, my director of photography Claire Mathon and I wanted to shoot digital for one reason.

We wanted to give back to these women from the past their hearts, their desire, the rush of blood to the cheek. It was a love story, of course, but it was also a movie about the rise of desire. We wanted to look at desire, which is something we rarely see because of the strong convention in cinema of love at first sight. We always agree that of course you’re going to totally fall in love. Digital was about the rush of blood. Like, can you feel this?

We began with shooting the exteriors for eight days. I wanted it to be kind of gothic, so it’s colorful, but it’s more Brontë sisters, the gray and the rain. And it was super sunny [when we shot the exteriors]! Cinema is about welcoming things with enthusiasm, especially things that you don’t have power over. You have so much power over everything that sometimes it can be super disturbing that you don’t get what you expect, especially with period pieces where you design everything. And the fact that the sun came in, we were like, this is good news, and we have to bring back this light now to our castle in the Parisian periphery [where the interiors were shot].

The lighting was taking a lot of time, because the castle was very old, so we couldn’t put anything on the walls — no lighting, nothing. So it was all coming from the outside. You know, this big structure with a lot of light involved. So every scene was very smoothly lit [to mimic the look of the bright sun]. Sometimes it’s painful, because you have less time with the actors and you dedicate a lot of time to the light. In cinema, the time you devote says a lot. And every shot was very, very precisely lit.

Emily VanDerWerff

Greta Gerwig gave an interview where she said that before she shot Little Women, Steven Spielberg told her that if you’re making a movie set in the 1800s, it really needs to be shot on film. Normally, I’d agree with that, but I think your film captures how it would feel to be in a room where there’s only the one light source, a fireplace or candle or something. How did you create that world where there might be only the one light source over in the corner or the wall, and it’s dark everywhere else?

Céline Sciamma

You had to be very inventive. Period pieces are all about choosing what you’re going to do with the candles. And a character walking with a candle took so much [light] around. Sometimes the actors, they couldn’t move. They were surrounded with rope lights that were invented by the camera crew. You invent your own way of lighting things, which is a lesson you can learn from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, where he actually invented optics to find the right candle lighting. I entered the room, and I was amazed. It was really like a fantasy world with a lot of rope lights everywhere. And it’s pretty radical in a way, because it’s not naturalistic, yet it feels so true.

Emily VanDerWerff

The movie’s class politics are interesting, too. Even though Marianne has a little bit more freedom than Héloïse, they both have more freedom than Sophie, the maid. How did you want to talk about class in the middle of all of these other sociopolitical dynamics?

Céline Sciamma

It’s two levels. It’s trying to embody how sorority can abolish social hierarchy but within a collective, small group with a kind of friendship. But that doesn’t mean that we’re naive. Sophie’s basically more stuck than any of them. But it’s also about the narrative and how the story never portrays her as the servant. She’s never in the frame if she doesn’t have something to say or a stake for herself. She’s never an extra.

She disappears from the movie for a long time, and then she comes back when she has her own journey, which is a way to treat her as a whole character, but not by taking the step of showing the oppression and being oppressive with the character and by making her perform what’s expected from a maid in cinema. Does she know about their love story? We’ll never know. This is a decision that the film makes that is not a betrayal to the reality of the maid but that actually embodies her as a full human. That’s how cinema can bring more equality without being in a fantasy.

Emily VanDerWerff

In talking about how this movie depicts sorority and lesbians being at the forefront of political revolutions, I’m reminded that Sophie has an abortion in this movie. It feels like such a necessary part of the story, but if you really think about it, it’s not as central as the love story. What made it so important to put in the film?

Céline Sciamma

It’s a two-step scene. Because there’s an abortion scene, and the three women then represent the abortion by painting it. And, I always thought about that in this two-step thing, which some people find disturbing.

There’s this French author named Annie Ernaux, and she wrote a book about her own abortion, and in this book, she says there is no museum in the world where there is a frame called “The Abortion.” It’s an everyday thing, but it’s never represented. And why?

When you’re looking at something that hasn’t been represented much, you’re filling a void. But it has to belong to this film. It’s not about making an abortion scene. It’s about making the abortion scene of that film and the fact that there’s a child on the bed consoling [Sophie as she goes through the abortion]. It’s the grammar of the film, which is a lot about people consoling each other. Those three things were really important to me in the process of making this scene. And also telling the audience that abortion is not about not liking kids. It’s about having the kids you want, when you want.

Emily VanDerWerff

When they create the painting of the abortion, it’s almost as if they all wordlessly agree it has to be done. I’ve seen a few people saying, however, that they felt like Sophie wasn’t asked how she felt about Marianne recreating this moment for a painting, and that’s maybe uncomfortable for her. What made that moment so potent for you?

Céline Sciamma

That scene is about the collaborative dynamic in the film. I really wanted Héloïse [the model] to have the input [on the painter]. “Look,” she says to the painter. “You should look.” She knows. What I wanted to embody in that scene is the input, the idea, the intellectual process of representing the abortion belongs to the model.

I really wanted to talk about this model-painter dynamic in a different way, because, you know, that was the only opportunity women had to be in workshops of the painter was to be models. There were very few opportunities to be artists because they didn’t get the education. And I really wanted to show that dynamic because these characters have ceased that dynamic. They weren’t silent, naked, inspiring women just because they’re beautiful in the room. They were very active, and they put all their brains into this. And that’s also what I wanted to show.

And also, the movie is fully about consent and how consent is also super erotic and super sexy. Sophie, even though she went through this, she’s being asked what she wants. And each time they touch each other, they never touch each other without asking first. We tried to make it very mutual.

Marianne and Heloise cuddle and caress in the movie Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Marianne and Héloïse delight in their newfound love.

Emily VanDerWerff

What about the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, which Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie have very different opinions on, makes it such a good grounding point for the film?

Céline Sciamma

The film represents a lot of mythologies about the model and the artist. Orpheus and Eurydice is a myth that has been looked at by feminists a lot, because it’s basically about how the male gaze can kill you. This tradition of looking at Orpheus and Eurydice like that and trying to see the point of Eurydice was, for me, a way to play with this myth.

I wanted those women to have strong intellectual conversations and perspectives, and I really crafted that scene where they talk about Orpheus and Eurydice as a “Netflix and chill” scene. You know? They get to talk about it, and each one has their own perspective.

We look at myth as something from the past that can give us lessons. Myth is not about the lessons. It’s not about the morality of it. It’s about the tension. And I wanted to embody that: the tension and the question.

Emily VanDerWerff

We’ve talked a lot about the power of gaze, of being able to see someone. But what’s the power of being seen, of Héloïse and Marianne finally seeing each other?

Céline Sciamma

It’s super hard to answer this question! [Being seen] makes you kind of fragile. Maybe that’s why people are so afraid. Maybe that’s why there are so many power dynamics in love stories. I think it’s about being totally fragile.

It’s like the shot-reverse shot dynamic at the moment when the painter realizes that she’s being looked at, when Héloïse says “Well, if you’re looking at me, who am I looking at?” Suddenly, there’s a wide shot of her behind the canvas and she seems so fragile and lonely. But it definitely makes her shift and makes her a better lover and a better artist.

Emily VanDerWerff

I have been thinking about love stories where it feels like the two lovers actually see each other, and they almost always end tragically, like we can’t believe that could be a sustainable dynamic in some way.

Céline Sciamma

Yeah. For instance, Titanic. Titanic is the hugest success, and it’s because it’s totally queer. Leonardo DiCaprio was totally androgynous at the time. DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were both not known — not stars — so there was no power dynamic between them. Like, if you look at the sex scene in Titanic, she’s on top. He’s the one who’s being totally fragile and insecure. I think it was a huge success because it’s a love story with equality and with emancipation.

I think the movies are in dialogue. I thought a lot about Titanic because it’s also the present of a love story and the memory of a love story. A successful love story should not be about eternal possession. No, it should be about emancipation. And it is an emancipation story, because maybe [Kate Winslet’s character in Titanic] lost this love, but we see her being free and riding horses and wearing pants. It’s all about emancipation.

The success of a love story is not about how long it lasts. It’s not about ending your life together. Him dying is tragic, but it’s not the end of the story. In equality, there is emancipation.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is in theaters now. It will expand throughout the country in the weeks to come. The Criterion Collection will release it on DVD and Blu-ray later this year.

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