How ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ became a ‘movie dedicated to love’


Writer-director Céline Sciamma’s latest movie “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is many things: A look at equality, a love story, a passionate romance between two women in 18th century France. But for the filmmaker herself, she hoped it could become even more. Sciamma made sure to also focus her attention on the movie’s audience, for whom she hopes will watch and go through the experience of falling in love themselves.

“I really wanted to embody, with the tools of cinema, what it’s like to fall in love. And to have the audience engaged in that process, with of course their mind, but also with their bodies,” Sciamma told entertainment writer Mark Olsen in this week’s episode of “The Reel” podcast. “And so, it means, yeah, believing a lot in cinema and believing also in the viewer as somebody active and engaged in the film.”


“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” won best screenplay and the Queer Palm award when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019. Before this movie, her previous three films have been perceived as a trilogy centered around teenage coming of age stories. Now years later, Sciamma wants “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” to explore something different.

“I Really wanted to talk about love, a love that would be fully lived. Whereas, in my previous films there was always a love interest, there was always a strong rise of desire, but it was mostly about discovering yourself. And I wanted that new interaction where it would be about discovering somebody else, they were discovering the other,” Sciamma said.

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While her previous projects contain similar love-centric themes, “Portrait” is the first time Sciamma departs from the contemporary, modern-day setting and takes audiences back in time, to the 18th century.

“I don’t have a particular taste for period pieces,” Sciamma said. “Really, saw it as the same job because cinema is always a reconstitution. It’s either a reconstitution of the contemporary world, and a period piece is about a reconstitution of the past. So, it does the same job, with a higher level of intervention.”

Sciamma says she’s done 14 releases of the film around Europe so far, before traveling to promote it in the United States. And she tells Olsen that she appreciates the journey.

“It’s a strong emotional journey, promoting a ‘Portrait,’” she said. “I never get bored. It never gets mechanical, because you meet the audience and you see the audience meeting the film. And that’s something I find really beautiful.”


“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is widely released on Valentine’s Day 2020.

Check out other episodes of “The Reel” here