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CANNES 2019 Competition

Céline Sciamma • Director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire

“I’ve spent my life loving films that sometimes hated me”

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- CANNES 2019: We spoke to Céline Sciamma, who, in her striking new feature Portrait of a Lady on Fire, reunites with Adèle Haenel after Water Lilies and the short Pauline

Céline Sciamma • Director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire
(© Claire Mathon)

In Portrait of a Lady on Fire [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Céline Sciamma
film profile
]
, which has taken Cannes’ main competition by storm, Céline Sciamma switches modern reality for 1770s France and focuses on artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant), commissioned to paint the portrait of a soon-to-be-married-off Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). But a well-paid assignment quickly develops into genuine affection, which takes them both by surprise.

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Cineuropa: You are best known for making and writing contemporary stories, so when did you decide to go back in time?
Céline Sciamma: It was a combination of several desires. After finishing Girlhood [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Céline Sciamma
interview: Céline Sciamma
film profile
]
, I started to dream about this film. I wanted to tell a love story, to have grown-up characters, work with Adèle Haenel again, and talk about women artists. I came up with this simple idea of a painter and a model, also because there were so many women painters at that time. I didn’t know about it because they have been erased, so I thought that even though it’s set in the past, it would be a good story for today. I enjoyed the idea of a new playground, but in reality, it didn’t feel all that new. It felt like the same job. It’s not about hiding in the past, but a period piece can allow you to be much braver sometimes.

There is so much warmth in the way you show women. They don’t judge – they find refuge in each other.
I find it very true to my own life as well. I didn’t have to imagine what sisterhood looked like. Not because it has always been like this, but because I can really connect to this feeling right now. We are lucky to live at a time when it’s really happening – I don’t think we say this often enough. As women, we were always raised to love men and to please them, but it’s changing. I began writing this film five years ago, and it already feels like another century. We even have new words to talk about feelings or relationships, including the ones that used to be hidden.

I am the product of male gaze – we all are. I've spent my life loving films that sometimes hated me, identifying with Superman, for example. Female gaze is a hybrid – it’s really about knowing both of these worlds. I am a lesbian, and I know how to live in a male-dominated environment. But the question is, can they?

Adèle Haenel’s performance in the film comes across as exceptionally tender. Did you want it to be so different from your previous collaborations?
Yes, because we had both changed. We were very young when we met, and even though we haven’t worked together for 12 years, we grew up together: in life, but also in cinema. This film speaks about that as well – about co-creation and collaboration with someone you know. There is something so modern about her, so people naturally assumed she would play the painter. But we wanted to show her in a new way: the pitch of her voice is higher, and she moves differently. This movie shows that there is really no such thing as a “muse”, because it’s a concept used to hide the fact that they were also co-creators, later reduced to these silent, fetishised women hidden in the corner of the room.

In stories of forbidden love, the outside world usually plays a huge part, threatening the characters’ happiness. You don’t have that here – for a while, they are completely alone.
If you live in a world that won’t allow you to live out your desire, it doesn’t mean the desire is gone, and just because you don’t run, it doesn’t mean you don’t want to. I wanted to give them back their hearts, souls and bodies. This movie is not about wondering if such a relationship would be possible – it’s not, and they know it. But I wanted to show how luminous and how satisfying it could be. We all know what society thinks – I don’t need to repeat it.

I was obsessed with this question of equality in love and friendship, which I think is possible in queerness and less so in straightness. We worked a lot on that in the process of writing, and then again while casting. With Noémie and Adèle, they are both the same height and the same age, but they’re intense in their very own way. Noémie is a believer and Adèle is an atheist – I am not talking about religion here, but their approach to acting.

Your film might be set in the 1700s, but it actually feels very current – a continuation of some conversations we have been having over the past few years, even the one concerning female filmmakers.
It’s a question of what’s more important or urgent at a specific time. When #MeToo happened, what was so terrible was that so many people, especially in France, started to say that it’s crucial to save this “French gallantry”. That’s their emergency. “We have to save that!” No, you have to shut up about it. I believe all of these diverse voices have the right to express themselves. For me, that’s a question of priority. If your mother has cancer, you wouldn’t joke about it while sitting at the dinner table at Christmas. But she can. I am one of the creators of the 50/50 movement, and we were so tired of the fact that the “female filmmaker” question always comes up last at the press conferences. We decided to turn it into a political issue, and now it is. It’s not really about feelings; let’s put those aside for a moment. It’s about looking at certain things from the right angle.

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