Lest anyone believe that Parasite was the only ground-breaking foreign language film of the past year, Céline Sciamma’s fourth feature, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, arrives to remind us otherwise. Like Parasite, it debuted in Cannes in 2019, where Sciamma won the Palme d’Or for best screenplay and the Queer Palm, a major award on the festival circuit honouring films for their treatment of LGBT themes.
Sciamma’s first venture into period drama is set in 18th century Brittany and follows the love affair between a female artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and the subject of her latest commission, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who’s facing an arranged marriage. It’s both a deeply affecting lesbian love story and a potent account of the process of painting that challenges the notion of the “male gaze” in society and art. Of its two principals, Haenel had already collaborated with the director, in Water Lilies, and has a burgeoning international reputation, with two French Oscars (Césars) and films such as The Unknown Girl and 120 BPM. Merlant is less well-known, though she earned a César nomination as a teenage girl who falls under the spell of ISIS recruiters in Heaven Will Wait, in 2015, and has risen to prominence with this new role.
Late last year Adèle Haenel lodged a police complaint of sexual harassment against director Christophe Ruggia, relating to incidents starting when she was 12, making her first film with him. theartsdesk met with Noémie Merlant in Paris, shortly after Ruggia, who denies any misconduct, was charged with sexual assault of a minor. The incident has ignited the #MeToo debate in a country that had been, for the most part, sitting on the side-lines.
DEMETRIOS MATHEOU: Do you remember your response to the script when you first read it?
NOÉMIE MERLANT: I do remember. I had this feeling that this is something that hasn’t been told yet, it’s something that I’ve missed – not as an actress, but as a woman. Everything about it: the representation of abortion, the representation of menstruation, the representation of collaboration between two women, two artists, the sorority feeling that there is in this movie, the sincerity of being with only women. All of this.
It was a shock. I was like, “Wow. What I have in my hand is really important”. I knew I wanted to make it straightaway. I didn’t know if Céline would choose me. But I thought that it was good that this movie was going to be made.
There have been films before about lesbian relationships and female friendships. What makes the telling of this one different?
It represents, really, all the levels of what we call the “female gaze” right now. We understand this lesbian love story through sensations, emotions. And there are new images also, for example the sex scene, the fingering of the armpit. Céline is trying to create new ways of showing things.
Another example would be the shot in which a baby is placed beside the maid, Sophie’s head as she’s having an abortion. It feels like a defence of every woman who’s ever been in that situation.
Yeah, completely. Actually, it’s really rare to have abortion scenes in movies. I think this scene with this baby, which is almost consoling the mother, speaks to a lot of women.
Although Héloïse is posited as the more mysterious of the two lovers, in a way we know less about Marianne. I wonder if you discussed a back story, with Céline, which we don’t see?
Not much, because Céline is saying: “This is the present of their story”, we have to be focused in the moment. It was actually better, because you don’t intellectualise, you are working on the concrete. And Céline thought about everything already, in the script, which was perfect. Everything was there.
What did you like about Marianne?
I like the fact that she’s dynamic and curious. She’s confident with her desires. At the start of the movie she feels so lucky to be independent, she doesn’t have to marry, and she feels that she knows everything. That’s when Héloïse comes. She is not just the object, she’s a subject, and when she says the first portrait is not her, and it’s not Marianne, she makes my character change. Marianne has a transformation through this collaboration, it makes her understand that she’s just been following the ideas and rules [of portraiture], that her art should be more personal.
You’ve referred to them both as artists.
For me, it’s two artists. Women are always referred to as “the muse”. Actually, no, the models are artists also, they are part of the process, the creation. It’s because of Héloïse that we get the second portrait, the good one; because of her, Marianne listens to who she is as an artist, she doesn’t go along with that male vision of art, but with Héloïse she creates her own.
As an actress, you were about to enter a collaboration with Céline and Adèle, your director and co-star, who already had a strong bond as professional collaborators and former partners. Were you nervous about that?
Yeah, I was nervous, before I met them. But when we did meet together, at the audition, they were really careful about this. It was important to them. I never asked them, but I’m sure they talked about it. They were really trying to give equal space to me and to everybody on set, and not be too close together. So I found my place straight away.
Did you rehearse?
There was no rehearsal of the scenes, no rehearsal with Adèle. The only rehearsals I had was on the process of being a painter.
Had you painted before?
I like to draw. But painting a bit also, because my mother liked to paint. Self-taught. And with my other hand! Hélène Delmaire, who is doing the actual painting [when we see the character’s hand, only], is right-handed. So I had to use my right hand, and to find a fluidity using this hand, to give the impression that it’s the same person. I’m not that bad with that hand, but when you see me painting Adèle my portraits are more like Picasso or Bacon!
I was really focused on the gaze of the painter, and finding a particular gaze for Marianne. I was trying to catch things in Hélène’s gaze, and Céline’s, too, because Céline for me is the painter of this movie. I think concentration and a concentrated gaze are really sexy. So I worked on that, and the gesture, the technique, the rhythm.
Going back to the decision not to rehearse. So you and Adèle were trying to create this growing intimacy and desire in front of the camera?
With too much rehearsal, you fix too much. We were creating in the present moment, during the shooting. And because we didn’t know each other, it was a good way to catch some sincerity. I was observing Adèle, she was observing me. We were trying to understand each other at the beginning, and then having fun, and at the same time creating a collaboration. We have the same kind of expectation as actors – working hard and having fun, making surprises.
We never knew how the other would send over a line, or a look. There is one scene when Adèle smiles at me – the camera is on me – and she gave a smile that I could really react to, because I just wasn’t expecting it. I was blushing. So each time there were surprises that we made for each other, keeping things alive.
We have a good mix of temperaments. She talks more, is more extrovert. I’m more silent. We have different imaginations: she has this cape in the movie, which she saw as “Galactic Empire” and I saw as just a weird bird!
Adèle is going through a lot at the moment, with the case against Christophe Ruggia. It takes a lot of courage to do what she’s doing.
Oh, yeah. It’s hard to talk about what she’s experienced. I respect that so much, her courage. It’s so important what she did, for her and for so many people. I have a huge admiration for her.
You’ve started to direct yourself…
I’ve directed a short movie. And I shot a feature film last summer, in just 16 days actually. It’s set in Romania. I wanted to be completely free, so I’ve used my own money. And now I’m editing it. It’s a love story. And it’s with gypsies. I think we don’t talk enough about this community.
Were you inspired to direct by the experience of working with Céline?
Completely. I feel more confident now with the fact that I want to write and direct. Before, I wasn’t comfortable being in the box of “actress”, but I felt I couldn’t do something else; I was thinking too much about what other people would think. And with Céline, no, follow your desires.
This article first appeared in The Arts Desk