“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” Director Céline Sciamma Says Being a Lesbian Is Her “Political Identity”

"It informs a lot of things more and more. It’s not a label."

Lesbian writer and director Céline Sciamma has gained a reputation as an expert dissector of female oppression and the various ways women break free. Her previous films include Water Lilies (about a love triangle of pubescent girls) and Tomboy (about a girl who pretends to be a boy when arriving in a new neighborhood).

Her newest and most acclaimed movie yet, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is set in the late 1790s on an island off Brittany, where an artist named Marianne (Noémie Merlant) recalls how she was assigned to paint a wedding portrait of a girl, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), but had to do it surreptitiously because the girl loathed the idea of getting married. So Marianne becomes her companion and dutifully follows her around while memorizing her features and falling head over heels for her. When the ruse is revealed, a quick sense of betrayal is followed by expressions of a mutual attraction, flirtation, and deep love, which the film portrays in carefully paced intimacy.

As the two break down their defenses and get to know each other, there is talk of Orpheus and Eurydice, the legend about the musician who chose a glance of his loved one for memory’s sake rather than a lifetime of satisfaction. The moment where Marianne gets her last look as Héloïse prepares for a tortured life is stunning—but it might not be the last look after all. Marianne’s loving painting of her is another way to capture her forever.

There’s also a subplot involving Héloïse’s sister, who fell to her death, and another plot with a servant who’s pregnant, as women’s assigned roles and limited choices remain the spotlight topic (along with fiery imagery, as suggested by the title).

The award-winning cinematography is by Claire Mathon, and the leads deliver great performances, as does Valeria Golino (Rain Man) as Héloïse’s countess mom, who commissions the painting. This is painstaking stuff, not for the Marvel comic crowd.

NewNowNext caught up with Sciamma to talk about her achievement.

Hello, Céline. This is such a sensitive lesbian love story. I don’t think there have been that many in cinema history, have there?

I don’t think so. There’s not a lot of lesbian representation in the cinema, and very few films made actually by lesbians. There are a lot of lesbian characters in cinema history that died a lot—they commit suicide. I’d been missing it all my life. Growing up, I had to wait until I was 17 to actually see two women kissing, in When Night Is Falling by Patricia Rozema.

Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Moët and Chandon
Céline Sciamma.

Did you like the 2015 period drama Carol?

I loved it.

It’s sad, but at least they didn’t die. [Laughs]

It’s not that sad necessarily because in the end, the last shot tells you they might continue with a relationship.

Does being a lesbian inform your choices of what films you want to make?

It’s my political identity. It informs a lot of things more and more. It’s not a label. People ask, “Are you not bothered that your work is going to be looked at as lesbian work?” But it’s powerful and political and dangerous. It’s not limiting, because it’s a powerful culture. What I like about the film getting such a strong response is that very different types of audiences will connect with it.

Orpheus and Eurydice are discussed in the film. Is Héloïse going to hell with her marriage?

That’s a good commentary, but I wasn’t thinking, Oh, she’s going to go to hell with the marriage. Obviously, it’s something she doesn’t want. I wanted to mostly show how their love story puts her in the dynamic of emancipation, despite this marriage.

From left: Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel.

Do you think she’s unhappy about marriage because she’s a closeted lesbian, or is she not even aware of that?

I have no input on that. If I’m not telling it in the film, I have no hidden agenda for my characters.

Then why is she dreading the marriage so much?

Because she knows she will just be an object. She knows about the rules of society. Her sister basically committed suicide. She knows she has no choice.

Your actors are very convincing as they gradually fall for each other. Do you tell your cast to take their time?

The thing we did was not rehearse before shooting, so they would actually meet in the process of working together, like the two characters. And the way we work, I’m being really accurate, like how many steps they have to take to meet one another—two steps. Within those constraints, they became inventive and surprised me all time.

It’s clearly a film about women’s limited opportunities and the way they seize freedom.

I think that might be the thread between all my films. That’s how they all end up with each other.

Also, it’s about the period, but it happens to be extremely relevant.

The thing that struck me the most when doing research was that in the second half of the 18th century, there were hundreds of women painters. I wasn’t aware of that. We’re always told that women’s opportunities are linear, always growing, but that’s not the case. It’s always in cycles. Today, we’re going through a phase and experiencing backlash and resistance. The story of women repeats itself.

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.