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French director Celine Sciamma, seen here on Feb. 8, 2020, says Portrait of a Lady on Fire 'is a film about how you look at women, and the dialogue around creation.'

JEAN-BAPTISTE LACROIX/AFP/Getty Images

It is always a good sign when a publicist leaves the room. Often, interviews between journalists and filmmakers get locked into a by-the-numbers, cautionary format: Director sits on a hotel-room couch, PR flak standing guard no less than five feet away and attention never deviating from the clock, careful to ensure no conversation exceeds 12 minutes and 30 seconds. It doesn’t result in the most scintillating conversation, but what can you do – that’s the way directors are told to operate these days. But Céline Sciamma is not that kind of director.

The French filmmaker is currently promoting her fourth film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a sensational romantic drama that subverts aesthetic and expectation. Set in the 18th century, Sciamma’s film follows young artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) as she attempts to paint a portrait of an Italian noblewoman’s reclusive daughter (Adèle Haenel) in preparation for the latter’s marriage. It is a celebration of passion as much as it is a political dissection of desire and a rebuke to the male gaze that has dominated the way we’ve consumed art for centuries.

French romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire will ignite every flame you might have

Far from the eyes of a watchful publicist, Sciamma spoke at length with The Globe and Mail at this past fall’s Toronto International Film Festival about politics, desire, enemies and art.

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You’ve said that every film should be political, and if it’s not, then it’s not a very good film. This year’s lineup at TIFF seems especially political, from Parasite to The Platform. Do you think filmmakers are taking advantage of the platform they have right now?

I’m always suspicious of films that say they’re not political. If they’re not political, they’re happy with the way that things are, which is itself a political statement. Cinema is an opportunity always to reorganize the world. What you put in the frame, and what you leave out of it. It is always a political choice. I think we should be aware of that, and thinking about that constantly.

Would you say your film is hyper-political?

It could be labelled that, because it’s talking about the male gaze, and it’s talking about cinema itself, and it’s talking about 100-per-cent female characters. It’s a film about how you look at women, and the dialogue around creation. The film has a lot of layers, but it’s playful with its ideas, too. But you could also say that it’s a love story, but one that has something new. I’m trying to create new sensations and new images for the audience. A new experience.

Talking about the new, this is your first film that’s set in the past, after the contemporary Girlhood, Tomboy and Water Lilies. Why the historical setting this time?

It was a desire of cinema and genre, but it didn't feel like a departure. It's the same job – reinventing the world. What should be contemporary, though, is the film, always. The tension between the period piece and making a contemporary object of cinema was fun. Setting it in the past was a way to make it radically contemporary. And then there's the fact that it's a story that hasn't been told before, about women artists and this kind of passion. You feel like it belongs to today. To me, it was a guarantee that I would have to be really contemporary to set it in the past.

There was a five-year gap between your previous film, Girlhood, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. What was the development process like?

It was a long time, but during it I wrote for other filmmakers, like [the animated film My Life as a Zucchini]. But it’s been a long reverie. I had to dream about this film for a long time, and the journey in writing it, it was mostly buffering. I wasn’t writing the script, but trying to find the right balance between my desire of crafting a love story, of dedicating a movie to love, with a memory of politics and love. I did a lot of research, too, because I wasn’t adapting a book or historical fact. I didn’t want it to have the biopic dynamic of this strong woman who made it in this impossible world. That’s not the politics of the film. I wanted it to be true. I worked with a sociologist who studied the art of this period, because I was very ignorant of this flourishing moment for women painters at the time, who were all erased from art history. It took some time to find the right balance between these layers. Once I sat down to write the script, it was very fast, within four or five months. But it was a long journey.

On the note of the female gaze, you spoke at the premiere about there being a hybridity to it. Could you elaborate?

Well, I’m the product of the male gaze, as we all are. We’re so much the product of the male gaze that in France it’s still called the universal gaze. We’re only beginning to have this conversation there. Nobody asks me about the female gaze in France, they only ask me about being a female director. It feels good to be here, to speak the same language and be understood and not despised.

Is that how it felt when your film was in Cannes this past spring?

The international press was enthusiastic, and seeing the point and taking the film seriously. I can’t talk about all French critics, but Cahiers du Cinéma gave me a zero. This means that we are political enemies – they aren’t even looking at it seriously. So that’s my country. And maybe Cahiers isn’t read by anybody, but it is a symbol. It’s really all old white men in power. And this movie is about power, and the power of looking and who is doing the looking. But that’s why it was also great to be in Cannes. It feels like a shiny medal, because you’re going to be looked at with that international scale. France is of course a great country for cinema, and the fact that we have so many art-house theatres is powerful. But it’s also very conservative. Are we really taking seriously these issues? Are we curious? Are women given the same opportunities to be taken seriously? We’ll see.

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Have you thought about making movies outside of France?

No, because I want to talk from France. I'm glad that there's this tension. It's not happening by chance. I have an agent in America, but it's just not the same job. It'd be asking someone, "Do you want to do your job in another way?" So far, I don't.

You’re one of the creators of the 50/50 x 2020 pledge, which seeks gender parity in film. Since that movement was announced in 2018, what’s the momentum been?

Well we've been working, and it's a cultural battle that has just begun. It is being taken seriously. In France, we had no #MeToo, just the backlash to #MeToo. Just the cultural debate around puritanism. So we decided to be more political and create tools to be taken seriously. But the big step is thinking around representation, and we still have a long way to go. Also, France made my film, it was made with French money. Things can happen, and I hope that this film can prove that new voices can rise from such reflection. It doesn't have to always be the same people telling the story.

So you’re optimistic?

Well … [laughs]. I think when you’re leading the good fight, you should be optimistic. And I’d rather see the frontier in the distance than live in this blurry world. I’m a feminist and I’m a lesbian and I’d rather we all talk about that. I’d rather see that we have political enemies than think, oh, it’s all a matter of opinion. I think it’s better to be a radical. It’s more interesting because you can have communities around you. I’m optimistic because we have less hypocrisy in this world. It’s harder to live in a world with less hypocrisy, but it does allow for a better dynamic to create new, interesting things.

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With less hypocrisy, though, it seems like there’s the illusion of progress. That the conversation can fade more easily.

Optimism is a dynamic, because otherwise it's too depressing to think about. But at least we're having the right conversation. The sorority grows.

Do you feel pressure on this film, then, and what it might mean for your work going forward?

Yes, but it’s a good pressure. Cinema is very important, and when people ask if directors if cinema can change the world and everybody is modest about it … I think it can. Can culture change culture? Yes. I’m glad this pressure is here.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens Feb. 14 in Toronto and Vancouver before expanding Feb. 21 to other Canadian cities

This conversation has been condensed and edited

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