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Céline Sciamma: 'You have to be fearless'

The French director of ‘Tomboy’ and ‘Girlhood’ enters adult territory with period romance ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’. She shares its story

Céline Sciamma
Photograph: Claire Mathon
By Hanna Flint |
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Céline Sciamma has made a name for herself in the coming-of-age genre, earning acclaim for her trilogy of films ‘Water Lilies’ (2007), ‘Tomboy’ (2011) and ‘Girlhood’ (2014). Now the French filmmaker enters adult territory with ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’, which tells the intimate story of lesbian love between a late-eighteenth-century painter (Noémie Merlant) and her aristocrat model (Adèle Haenel). Prepare to fall hard for this one.

When did you first conceive this story?

‘It was after [2014’s] “Girlhood”. I wanted to devote a whole film to a love story. My films have mostly been about the rise of desire as the discovery of oneself. Now it was all about crafting this love dialogue around equality, and the sexiness of consent. I think this is timeless and it belongs to today.’

Why did you decide to set the film in the eighteenth century?

‘People who don’t like the film say: “Oh, it’s lacking conflict. We don’t see the problem of homosexuality enough.” I didn’t set it in the past to push the forbidden side of it because it’s still forbidden. I mean, it [homosexuality] is not super-welcome today. This movie is all about equality and how things can be surprising because there’s no gender, age or intellectual domination – and we’re not playing with social domination either.’

Céline Sciamma with Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel. Photograph: Featureflash Photo Agency

Why did you cast Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel?

‘The film was designed with Adèle in mind as the model and so, in the opposite way, I wanted to meet somebody that I didn’t know. I wanted to make a lesbian couple that was all about that performance, not the people playing the roles. I met Noémie alone at first and then we did the scenes with Adèle. That’s when I knew because I put the two of them in the frame and there was a beautiful, physical contrast.’

Lesbian sex scenes are often censored more harshly. Did that worry you?

‘I never think about that. [For] “Tomboy” I had to create suspense with a Play-Doh penis. It’s not a film designed for kids, but I wanted them to see it – and they are. The film’s running in schools and 200,000 kids have seen it. You have to be fearless.’

The film opens with a perilous-looking journey by boat. What was it like filming at sea?

‘Those kinds of scenes are the ones that take you the most time, because everybody’s scared. I really wanted [to film at] sea, because it’s about the character jumping in the water – and the film with her, because the camera goes in too. That’s two surprises that make you depart from the convention of women who don’t know how to swim. But it was really difficult, because the dress is super heavy, the sea was really cold and people were surfing [nearby]. The boat was moving, the camera was moving and I was looking at a screen. It was hell.’

'I put the two of them in the frame and there was a beautiful, physical contrast.'

The film is full of art, of course. Where did you get the paintings?

‘We used a 32-year-old artist I discovered on Instagram called Hélène Delmaire. I really wanted to work with a contemporary artist and Instagram shows work that won’t be in galleries because it’s not the fashion. [Hélène] does portraits in a more nineteenth-century style and I was totally moved by her work. I wanted to work with a young female artist who was the age of the character. She was always on set, because she was in a workshop actually doing the paintings. Noémi would watch her [to study] the gaze of the painter and the rhythm: the choreography of the eyes, canvas and model.’

Were you disappointed the film wasn’t selected for the Oscars?

‘We had hoped to get picked because we have had such a strong response in the US. The movie was released before the Oscars so it wouldn’t have made a difference if it had been selected or not. I think it’s political and that’s also why you want to go there: it’s not about personal success, especially when you’re representing your country.’

'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' is released in cinemas on Fri Feb 28.

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Photo: Courtesy of Neon Pictures
Film, Drama

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

5 out of 5 stars

Céline Sciamma’s glorious period romance is a masterclass of swelling passions in a time of stifling restraint.

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