It’s almost shocking to see Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel in a modern setting and contemporary fashion. They disappear so much into the characters they play in Portrait of a Lady on Fire and the world they inhabit—a brief but idyllic love affair in 18th century France—that reality is jarring in contrast. (It’s kind of like when you started seeing Downton Abbey’s actors in other roles.) This is not to erase their past acting accomplishments, just to note how indelible their work in Céline Sciamma’s polemic romance is.
A follow-up to our interview with the film’s writer-director, Jezebel talked to its stars, both French, about finding their characters’ love on screen. We met in person in late September while they were in town to present their movie at the New York Film Festival. Merlant was, like her painter character Marianne, somewhat reserved, while Haenel, who plays Héloïse, the unbeknown subject of Marianne, was intense. “Sex scenes are violent for actresses, and this time it was not,” Haenel told me. She explains why in the interview below, which is edited and condensed.
JEZEBEL: What do you make of the rapturous response this movie has received?
NOÉMIE HAENEL: We did the movie we wanted to do, first. We did it very sincerely and with a lot of imagination—everything that creates a piece of art.
ADÈLE MERLANT: We were so excited to do this because it’s a love story, but there are so many things in it that we wanted to share, that Céline wanted to share that I think are really important. To see that people connect with us, with the film, it’s so warm.
Haenel: It’s a new proposal of love that is usually not portrayed, a proposition with a lot of equality in it. It shows the sexiness of equality, the sexiness of consent. I think we need it. As artists, we have the responsibility to offer new stories for people to live. The major story about a successful life is about possession. It’s about having your wife, your dog, your house. I think it’s not enough. We need different stories. We need for people to think about their life in a different way, having other expectations. I think this is why the response to the movie is very strong: We offered a new possibility. Love, which is not only about the possession of somebody or sadness. You can create with somebody and love this person and the fact that it has an end doesn’t mean the feeling itself is dead. The journey of the feeling continues in you. You will become somebody more alive; you will have higher expectations in life.
Merlant: It’s another vision, another angle. The woman’s vision. We don’t have enough of that.
Is that one of the things you referred to as wanting to share with the world?
Merlant: This. I was happy to read [the script]. I love love stories.
Haenel: Me too.
Merlant: And how it was written, it took the time to build. We are in a society where we don’t take time. In movies, everything is frontal. Everything is here. You don’t use your imagination. I think that’s less erotic. I feel more intelligent when I watch this kind of movie, more part of it. There is this, that was, for me, new or not shown enough, and also this vision of women. It’s a movie where the women fill the frame and take their freedom in a world where there is restrictions everywhere. They find their way to love. They don’t talk about men because it’s a vision of a woman writing this movie. We see something that we’re not used to seeing in movies and that is us. Women. It’s another vision, but it’s a big vision because it’s more than half of society. Just this thing of, “Let the women express themselves,” and how are they when we let them do that. They live their desires.
Haenel: It’s very important to create new stories that people can identify themselves in because the common story I talked about—about success—is in a way naturalized in society, but most of the people feel uncomfortable with that because they just cannot fit in.
Adele, I assume you were aware that this was being written given your [past] relationship with Céline.
How much did you know? Was it at all collaborative at the conception phase?
So she presented you with the script one day and said…
Haenel: “Voilà.” It took her a long time to write it, I think three or four years. I was aware that she was planning on working with me again, but I didn’t really know what she had in mind. It’s okay because I trust her. She gave me the script, it took me three days to dare to read it. I was like, “I hope it’s going to be good,” because I had high expectations. I read it, and I… as you know, she won Best Script in Cannes, so it’s a great script. I was touched, I was moved, and I was excited. I said, “Okay, yeah, we are going to try to create something that has never been done before, in a very naked way and in a very sharp way.” I feel like we are a team, Céline and I. Noémie came later and she is totally part of the team. When she arrived on the movie, it was, “Okay, this is what it’s about. It’s not just about the relationship between Céline and I—it’s about sharing this. It’s about welcoming a new person that comes with new ideas.”
Is the chemistry you have on screen natural? Did you do anything to foster it?
Haenel: The chemistry comes from the fact that we didn’t really rehearse together. I was just there when Noémie went through the casting process, so I met her at that point and we played a bit. To me, it’s a great way to meet somebody, to do it while acting. I think the chemistry comes from the fact that we were listening to one another, just trying to really catch the reaction. It’s like the beginning of the wave, trying to understand where Noémie is. Before the emotion comes to the surface, I try to see where she is. I think this kind of game we had while acting, this is what creates intimacy. We don’t pretend we know each other but we are really meeting each other. We built the characters in an intricate way with the process of the movie.
It sounds like the process you went through is much like that which your characters went through, learning about each other slowly and intuitively via silent cues.
Merlant: It completely is. We hadn’t rehearsed before, and Adele and I were building a collaboration as Marianne and Héloïse. You know when you start to work and meet someone, first you look at the other, you don’t talk much, you hesitate, you’re confused sometimes? We were using the reality and putting it in the story. Adele is someone who is really intense in the sharing process. She likes to play; she likes to make jokes. Everything is written, even the looks. But how you feel the look, how you put life in the look, because you can look in someone in many different ways. But it’s her look, her gaze. I like to play, too, and I like to open the borders. Every time she was giving me a proposition, I was surprised, and so I reacted and she reacted to that. It was always like that: We were building it in the instant.
Haenel: It’s also about being light while playing, like a boxer. You just move in every direction, whatever your partner does. It’s like that to me, to meet on the set.
The cast was almost entirely women, from what I understand the crew was very female-heavy as well. Is there a practical advantage to that?
Haenel: Yes. It changes [things]. I’m used to being on set with a lot of men. It doesn’t mean I didn’t have great experiences working with some men, but for sure, at this point it is an experience that is very rare.
Merlant: There were men in the crew, but in the acting yes it was only girls. I don’t want to make a comparison, but there are a lot of movies with only men, and we don’t really notice it. It’s normal. It was interesting because we don’t act and live in life in the same way when we are only with girls, like when men are with men. It was interesting to show this. It was interesting to live this during the shooting. It’s something else. There is no domination of the body. Society builds something between men and women.
Did it make the love scenes easier in any way?
Haenel: No, what made the love scenes easier is not the fact that there are no men. It’s the fact that there is an idea. There’s a point of view on love. That makes it easier. When there is no point of view on what sex is, you are the one stolen. This time was different, we didn’t fake anything, we just had this idea of the armpit. Celine had it, and then it’s not about you not giving something you don’t want to give. It’s about you collaborating on an idea. For me, it could have been like the entire crew on the set and it would have been the same. It was just another thing. There’s nothing different in this scene. The only difference is normally, sex scenes are violent for actresses and this time it was not.
Merlant: Even if it’s between girls. This was made with a lot of respect and collaboration.
Haenel: And fun.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is in theaters today, December 6.