“The jump scare is patriarchy. Cinema can do that!” writer-director Céline Sciamma told Jezebel in September, describing the movie she was in town to promote, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It was a nutshell encapsulation of the interrogation and obliterating of cinematic convention that her film pulls off so elegantly. On paper (or screen, as it were), Portrait of a Lady on Fire may sound insufferably dry: It’s an 18th century period piece in French about a brief romance between two women that contends with issues such as gaze and representation with such directness that it incorporates them into its text. I certainly did not expect to have my world rocked by such a movie, but it’s shattered me both times I’ve watched it. So much of that comes down to the chemistry between leads Adèle Haenel (as Héloïse) and Noémie Merlant (Marianne), subject and painter whose brief affair (and the thick tension preceding it) forms the crux of the story.
But plenty of credit must go to Sciamma’s vision of an overtly political movie that doesn’t go down like medicine, that asks as much as it tells, that doesn’t prioritize its virtue over aesthetics, but instead facilitates a perfect blend of them. “Basically, the film is about what it is to look at somebody, what it is to make a portrait,” explained Sciamma, whose past work includes 2007's Waterlilies and 2014's Girlhood. Marianne, a painter, is commissioned to render a portrait of Héloïse with a catch: She must not let Héloïse know that she’s being painted, as she’s previously been a difficult subject (she refused to sit and model for a male portraitist that preceded Marianne). Marianne poses as Héloïse’s hired walking companion, and her surreptitious examination of her subject doesn’t go unnoticed but interpreted as a loving gaze, which Héloïse returns. The movie feels classic in that you know where it is going (Héloïse and Marianne’s time together is finite by design), and yet being transported there is no less a thrill. Complicating matters is that the portrait has been commissioned to secure Héloïse’s engagement to a suitor. Each brushstroke of Marianne’s is one closer to tragedy.
Héloïse and Marianne’s temporary world together—a brief utopian drop in the bucket of time—is free of male presence. Héloïse’s countess mother (Valeria Golino) and her servant Sophie (Luàna Bajram) round out the principal cast. Portrait also includes a subplot that tackles what abortion was like in the 18th century French seaside. It’s all so mannered, as composed as a masterwork and as stiff as a corset, and yet all so radical. I can barely remain composed enough to describe its wonders. Please go see this incredible movie, my absolute favorite of the year (and up there with the best things I’ve seen all decade). I think it complements The Lighthouse astoundingly well, as basically its diametric opposite.
Adding to the texture is the fact that Sciamma and her star Haenel were previously in a relationship together. We touched on that briefly. Sciamma, a vocal proponent of the French film industry’s gender parity movement 5050 by 2020, was engaged, warm, and intellectually lively during our conversation. Below is an edited and condensed transcript.
JEZEBEL: This movie is not merely a love story; it is embedded with ideas. A viewer can’t not see the gaze. What was your creative starting point? Was this a love story from which issues naturally arose, or did you approach it as polemic?
CÉLINE SCIAMMA: At first, it was this idea of a love story, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not immediately kind of polemic. I always try to make new stuff, so when I’m thinking “love story,” I have all these ideas around representation. From the start, I wanted it to be a love dialogue and also a creation dialogue. So then, the matrix is already being playful with the idea of love and representation of love. Basically, the film is about what it is to look at somebody, what it is to make a portrait, and it’s cinema, so you’re asking yourself the same questions. It could seem a little brainy, but it’s really exciting to think like that. And if the level of the conversation is already there, maybe you can try to embody these ideas into scenes and make a very organic, physical film. If you don’t play with the ideas, you might end up with something quite dry intellectually. It’s a cool dynamic to be in.
I think the title of your film is deceptively rich with meaning. Beyond the visual representations of a literal lady on fire, I suspect that metaphorically what you’re getting at is the idea of burning down the idea of how women should be or have been represented in film and/or art.
Of course, and it’s part of the fun of it all. The movie can be seen as a manifesto: “Let’s make this new.” But it’s also really, really joyful to set fire to things. We really tried to create this physical experience of ideas. I always hope part of the emotion of being a viewer is getting slowly but surely in the rhythm of the film, and then you begin to speak its language. And part of the excitement and the joy is being in that intellectual game. The film is a dialogue with you. That’s part of the emotions that I enjoy the most.
How early on did you realize that you wanted Adèle [Haenel] to play Héloïse?
It was part of the origin of the film. I wanted to make a love story, I wanted to talk about creation, and I wanted to work with Adèle again.
So in a way of speaking, this is a portrait that you’ve created of someone that you’ve loved?
Well, yes, and also even of myself. It’s not only about her. The movie’s about, “If you’re looking at me, then I’m being looked at, and this is given. This is offered.” There were different wills. There was the will to look at somebody that I know very well, but also to make something new. That was part of the project and the deal we had: We’re gonna show something different. Even the way she pitches her voice is different than other films, the way she uses her face, her body. It wasn’t about, “I’m going to tell you about what I know about this girl.” It was about, “I know that girl so much that I trust her to actually depart.”
The idea of an all-female utopia is one this movie explores, and there are very few reference points for that in film. Did you use any existent ones like The Duke of Burgundy or The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (the latter not quite being utopian)?
No. I wanted to look at a possible love. Of course, it’s an impossible love story, but we are not telling about the obstacles. There’s no conflict. They’re not thinking about running away together. The old culture wants you to do that: Where is the taboo? Where is the impossibility? You used the word “utopia,” and cinema offers you that. It’s not a fantasy world, but it’s what we put into frame and what we leave out of it. What we leave out of the frame isn’t absent. It defines the frame.
It’s a movie set in the past, so we know how oppressed the women were and still are. There’s no doubt about it. Everybody knows that. Their lives were shitty. I’m not going to waste time telling about that. There’s one guy in the beginning and the same guy in the kitchen [at the end], and it’s like a jump scare. The jump scare is patriarchy. Cinema can do that! Just saying, “Hello.” This is the saddest hello. It’s just a hello. It’s not an antagonist. But suddenly, the domination is back. The tools of cinema allow you to experience this.
But when we talk about utopia, I think that our own utopias are not dreams that we have. We live them. That’s why we hope for them as a system or as possibilities for others. I know sorority. I know being only with women. It’s not my every day, every hour. But I know it, that’s why I can portray it. Utopia is about what we live, sometimes for minutes. Dystopia is the same. We live it in different amounts, depending on our own privilege, but it’s not this dark fantasy. It exists.
One of the most striking images in the movie occurs when one character gets an abortion while a baby lies next to her, touching her face. Can you tell me about the conception of that image?
I knew there was going to be this abortion scene for this particular character, the servant—well, I didn’t want her to be “the servant” character. She’s never in the frame as an accessory. I wanted her to be a character, a subject, so she has this journey [to] an abortion. I’ve seen very few abortion scenes in cinema. I mean, the 2007 Palme d’Or winner [4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days] by Cristian Mungiu was a movie about abortion. But when you’re going for representing something that hasn’t been represented much, I think you should also ask yourself about how this belongs in your film, and how is this going to be in the language of your film, and how it participates in the imagination of the film. It’s not about just doing the abortion scene, which is already quite difficult, but I needed something else. This idea of a child, it’s mysterious how it happens. But I also wanted to show how it’s everyday life, abortion. At the time, people lived in the same room and there were children, and they might not have been children of the person who was actually living there. Of course, you can read the image in very different ways, regarding your own story with abortion. The image of the kid consoling her I think is very polysemic—it also says aborting doesn’t mean you don’t like children or you don’t want children. I decided to go through with the scene, and it’s often the case in my work when I had this idea that actually allowed me to go for it.
You have kept out explicit depictions of sex, which I interpreted as a part of the movie’s grander scheme to reject and avert the male gaze. Is that what you were thinking?
Well, to me, there is a sex scene—the armpit scene. It’s a new way to look at sex, but sex is always simulating on screen otherwise it’s… We pretend it’s not something we should think about. This penetration, this digital penetration [in the movie] is unsimulated. To me, this is much more of a sex scene than a lot of sex scenes are. It happened. Everything that you’re looking at happened. It gave me kind of vertigo. It’s kind of an emotion. I wanted to create an image where you would be active as a viewer, which is something that doesn’t happen much in sex scenes. It’s always the climax of objectifying. So how do you also put a lighthearted thing in a sex scene, and fun and humor? That’s also a way to talk about sex. The scene is this journey for you, like, “Oh this looks sexual,” and then…”But this is not what I expected!” And: “This is fun.” To me, this is not avoiding sex. This is having a vision about the idea and the embodiment of sexuality onscreen.
I see that. Perhaps I’m small-minded in what constitutes sex on screen.
What I wanted to do was film desire. I mean looking at desire for 40 minutes, being in this erotic dimension, and not believing that sex is the climax of everything. We’re playing with expectations but hoping for strong physical sensation, not wanting to avoid them. I don’t think male gaze produces a lot of sexual tension in the room. I think it releases some, maybe, but I don’t know that it produces a lot of it.
Do you have any thoughts about this being labeled a lesbian or gay movie?
I’m a lesbian, and some of the cast is. It is a lesbian imaginaire. People say, “It’s a label,” as if it would make it smaller. Like the label “feminist” would make it narrow. But no. To me, our imaginaires are powerful, strong, new. Feminism isn’t about a small thing; it’s about sexual liberation... It’s an idea of freedom. It’s more. It’s bigger. And it is a lesbian imaginaire. Welcome. You’re welcome to discover it. People seem to be moved by it, but it is the way we dream. The sentimental, the love dynamic, it’s a lesbian love dynamic. I’m glad that people connect to it and say, “This talks about love,” but it’s big love. It’s not about, “Oh, it’s kind of the same.” No, it’s kind of different. I’m glad that everybody can connect to it because we’ve been connected to the straight imaginaire forever. We know how to do it. We’re not saying it’s narrow or whatever, even though sometimes it is because it’s so repetitive. [The label] is not something that shrinks the film, it’s something that I see as something that is wide.
I’ve always thought that, too: You can see a label as limiting your movie, or you can see your movie as expanding what constitutes the label.
Because we get despised, we can see how our own program is dangerous. It’s sexy, it’s dangerous, it’s bright.
There’s a saying in America that people used in the marriage-equality movement, and still today: “Love is love.” But I always thought that was imprecise. All love is different. Every individual love experience is different.
Of course, because it’s not the same power dynamic. That’s why it’s so important to say yes it’s a lesbian imaginaire and it’s about lesbian love dynamics. We’re glad you enjoy them. Everybody can start deconstructing the power dynamics in their own relationships. That’s why it’s not our little thing. It’s the philosophy and politics of love. We’re glad that it can expand.
Beyond these ideas, do you have any other theories about why this movie has seemingly struck such a chord with so many people already?
I think there’s a relief. New things give you new sensations, and you’re looking for that when you enter a theater, I think. A lot of women are experiencing strong relief that they can connect to a film like they never connected before. Men are glad they can have this experience also, even when watching a film without themselves in it. That was also the goal. Also because you’re making a movie about love, making this you’re thinking you want to give love and you want people to feel it. I really tried to craft this organic experience. I was hoping for this kind of reaction.
In a way, I think it’s been missing and we are filling a void by inventing something, which is what women have been doing. When Virginia Woolf wrote, it wasn’t just filling the void of women’s voice in literature; she was reinventing literature. It’s the same with cinema. When Chantal Akerman is doing Jeanne Dielman, she’s 25. She’s not being one woman director. She invents something that influences cinema for years, still on. We had big expectations because we had the opportunity. I come from a country where there are women directors, and I’m grateful for that. We can craft it and bring it everywhere. Here it’s not the same situation for women directors in independent cinema. But of course, it’s a surprise. People give you their emotions, and it’s always unique. The movie makes room for you and your own stories and your own past loves.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is in theaters Friday.