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How the women of ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ put a new spin on sex and smiling in French cinema

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Adèle Haenel, left, director Céline Sciamma and Noémie Merlant from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” at the Toronto International Film Festival.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

A period movie so alive with ideas and emotions it feels like it is taking place in the present tense, “Portrait of a Lady On Fire” has been igniting viewers around the world for the better part of a year.

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, the film won the screenplay prize and the Queer Palm award when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last summer, and has since been nominated for 10 César awards, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and a Spirit Award and picked up numerous critics prizes, including recognition for cinematographer Claire Mathon.

Set in late 1700s-Brittany, “Portrait” follows a young female artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), hired to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), recently out of a convent and expected to marry a man she has never met. The job is harder than it sounds: Marianne is told to paint the headstrong Héloïse without her knowing, as she already refused to sit for another painter. Spending time together at a remote chateau near the seaside, the two women form a fast, intense bond and begin to fall in love.

The film is a spellbinding romance but also has a lot more on its mind. Notions of art and representation, who gets to tell stories and what stories get told, becomes a vital part of the narrative. After Marianne and Héloïse help a servant girl named Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) get an abortion, Héloïse insists that Marianne paint a depiction of the event.

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After a brief qualifying run at the end of last year, “Portrait” was moved to begin its nationwide platform release on Valentine’s Day, taking it out of the crush of year-end awards titles and into a position that capitalized on its deeply felt romance. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is now truly a film for lovers.

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Noémie Merlant, left, and Adèle Haenel in a scene from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
(Neon)

By now, Sciamma has already promoted “Portrait” through numerous international releases and estimates she has done more than 350 interviews on behalf of the film.

“The box office, it really matters for me,” she said. “I want the film to be seen in theaters by people. So the fact that there’s this alternative strategy with the release in February, departing from the awards season, it’s fine because the most important thing for me is that people see it.”

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The movie is being released by Neon, the savvy distributor behind Bong Joon Ho’s best picture winner “Parasite.” On Oscars night Sciamma was seen congratulating Bong at an after-party and Bong then returned the favor by acknowledging the success of “Portrait” in South Korea during a speech at a late-night after-after party at a restaurant in Koreatown.

Indeed, “Portrait” has emerged as the biggest international success yet for Sciamma, a leading light of contemporary French cinema whose credits include 2011’s “Tomboy,” 2014’s “Girlhood” and the screenplay for 2016’s Oscar-nominated animated feature “My Life as a Zucchini.”

Haenel previously worked with Sciamma on the director’s 2007 debut “Water Lilies” and has gone on to be among France’s most celebrated young actresses and a two-time César award winner. The pair were in a romantic relationship for a number of years after “Water Lilies” but had publicly split before starting work on “Portrait.”

In person they retain an intense, palpable bond, which was on display when they sat for an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. Into that dynamic stepped Merlant, and together the three women project an electric intelligence, playful wit and strong, thoughtful perspectives.

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Adèle Haenel in a scene from “A Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
(Neon)

Merlant admits she had some trepidation about stepping into the strong connection between Sciamma and Haenel, but she was immediately welcomed in during an audition.

“As soon as I met them, I understood straight away that it will not be [closed off], it will be a circle,” said Merlant. “They’re really open and focused on building a nice environment for collaborators, for artists, for women, but not just between the three of us. It’s the same with all the team — it’s really free between everybody.”

Turning to the themes of the film, Sciamma notes that the way in which “Portrait” becomes a meta examination of who looks and what is looked at in the depiction of history was very intentional.

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“There’s a novelist in France named Annie Ernaux ... [who] said there’s no museum in the world with the portrait called ‘The Abortion,’” said Sciamma. “And that’s what is missing from art history, of course, but from our history too, if and when women are not in charge of representation. So it’s an image that is taboo. It shouldn’t be, and that’s why I wanted to represent it and represent the fact that it can be represented.

“It’s a matter of representation politics of the film, but it’s also really entertaining, I think,” Sciamma said. “To me those things are always linked. In the film the fact that there’s all these layers that we are playing with — it was part of the project and the joy of making it. Even on the set, we were well aware I’m an artist looking at models and the models are actually looking at the artists.”

Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel play an 18th century painter and her subject who fall in love in Céline Sciamma’s exquisite new movie.

Sciamma’s film has a passionate intensity, a feeling of being turned on, that makes it sensual, romantic and sexy even while it is not particularly explicit. What at first seems to be a startlingly graphic shot turns out to be something else, a visual joke that captures the wit and subversive sensibility of the film.

“I think that ideas and humor are the sexiest thing,” said Haenel.

“And the fact that you can imagine,” added Merlant, “if you don’t really see everything, then you can dream even more about it.”

“We have to find new ways to represent sex,” said Sciamma. “I’ve not been excited erotically by a French film for very, very long time. Sometimes it happens, but it’s always the same images. Some people don’t see sex in the film, and that’s too bad. Especially in cinema, it’s about the tension. A slow burn is about something growing and delay and frustration. To me, that’s how fiction represents the eroticism.

“And another thing also — consent is so sexy. We have to represent the sexiness of consent,” added Sciamma. “They always ask, even when she’s painting, ‘Can I touch you?’ And I think this is super-sexy to say, ‘Can I kiss you?’ And the movie’s all about the sexiness of consent. And I find it super-hot.”

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As much as an audience might want to see Heloise and Marianne giving in to their desire for each other sooner, there are other ideas at work.

“It’s also a lot about resisting. For instance, they don’t smile at each other for 70 minutes,” Sciamma said. “I’m sick of women always smiling on screen. I want them to be accurate, concentrating. Even as I want the smile to happen.”

Haenel compared the behavior of Héloïse toward Mariane to a small cat, both playful and withholding. But there is also something more meaningful to her seeming diffidence.

“If you smile immediately it’s like you are OK to be an object,” said Haenel. “All the time, as a woman you’re supposed to be nice. Like, ‘Look at me, I’m a nice chair’ or whatever, I’m smiling and not dangerous. And we wanted to portray a different way to be — to seduce a person, not pretending you are an object but really defending the fact that you are the subject. And this is why also it’s important not to smile all the time.”

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Adèle Haenel, left, and Noémie Merlant in a scene from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
(Neon)

For a number of years, Sciamma has been deeply involved with the movement known as 50/50 by 2020, which has been pushing for gender parity within the French film industry and international film festivals. And her activism off the set has fed back into her work on-set.

“My life has an impact on my films. For instance, this sorority that I’m feeling and living for the past two years actually gives me a strength, a joy,” she said. “And I think I’m better at portraying it because I’m living it more fully.

“All the feelings that you have, that you experience when you’re active politically, these are very strong emotions. It’s not only about ideas, it’s also a way of life. And all that goes in the film. And also because you feel less lonely, so you feel more brave.”

Sciamma’s creative bravery with “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” has already connected with viewers in some unusual ways. In the film, a secret message is shared between Marianne and Héloïse on Page 28 of a book, and the idea of “p.28” has become a romantic totem for audiences. Sciamma has even heard of multiple people getting it tattooed on their bodies.

“I’m so proud of that. I think I won best screenplay in Cannes for just ‘page 28,’” she said. “I’m sure that page is going to become the page of a lot of books and a lot of hidden secrets between people. And I liked the fact that movies can make a community of their secret language and then people are part of the language of the film.

“That’s why I do cinema. I do cinema to create, so that the film creates its own language. And that’s why also it’s slow, so that you learn the language. And that your emotion comes not only from the story, but from the fact that you speak that language too.

“That’s my strongest emotions in cinema,” Sciamma said. “I begin to speak the language of the film and I feel like I belong in here.”


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