According to out French filmmaker Celine Sciamma, her award-winning lesbian romance “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” started with “a simple desire.” Her initial intent was “to dedicate a film to love and to write a great love story.”
From there, she says, “it got more complex.” As she started to contemplate her new film, she started thinking about how love is born and about the rise of desire, about the memory of love and the philosophy of a love story. In French with English subtitles, “Portrait” opens at area theaters today.
Then she started thinking about characters.
“I wanted to write about a woman artist at work,” she says, “and to talk about the dynamic collaboration between the model and the artist, to have a love dialogue that was also a creative dialogue and that was the plot.”
The movie is largely set on an isolated wind-swept island in Brittany at the end of the 18th century. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a struggling young artist who is hired by La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) to paint a wedding portrait of her daughter, Heloise (Adèle Haenel). There’s only one catch: Heloise must not know that Marianne is painting her.
When La Comtesse travels to Milan to plan for the wedding, the two young women quickly become friends, then lovers, then finally collaborators.
Sciamma’s interest in the intimate partnership between female artists also influenced her work behind the camera.
“We were mirroring the situation in the workshop of the painter,” she says. “It was very joyful, I must say, very playful. We explored the idea of mutual gazing, of being very horizontal, of being collaborative with the actresses and the crew. We created a new power dynamic.”
Haenel, who is Sciamma’s long-time muse and former romantic partner, was the first actress cast in the movie.
“The film was written with Adele in mind,” Sciamma says. “We really wanted to work together again, so the part of Heloise was crafted for her.”
With Haenel attached to the project, the filmmaker decided to cast a stranger in the role of the painter Marianne.
“Since I was going to work with somebody I know very well,” Sciamma says, “I also wanted to keep the pleasure of working with a new actress.”
She admits that Merlant was cast both for artistic reasons (her amazing chemistry with Haenel) and for practical reasons (she was the right height).
For the challenging role of La Comtesse, the impoverished noblewoman who desperately wants to make a good marriage for her daughter, Sciamma turned to veteran actress Golino.
“I know her in life,” the writer/director says. “She’s a friend and a great actress. I wanted to avoid the convention of the bitter old woman in the castle and to create a character with a future and a project and with her own desire to go back to Milan and party. I thought Valeria would be perfect for the role because she combines a childlike sense of wonder and a very adult melancholia.”
Sciamma notes that her friend has had an amazing acting career that includes serious roles in European art house fare as well as leading roles in such Hollywood fare as “Big Top Pee Wee,” “Rain Man,” where she played Tom Cruise’s girlfriend, and the “Hot Shots!” movies, where she played Charlie Sheen’s love interest. Sciamma likes to tease her friend about her (literally) sizzling sex scene with Sheen in “Hot Shots! Part Deux.”
“We’ll never forget that olive-in-the-belly-button scene,” Sciamma says. “She hates it when I say that!”
”Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was a major hit on the 2019 festival circuit and finally opens wide in the United States on Valentine’s Day. The film won numerous awards, including Best Screenplay and the Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as Dorian Awards for LGBTQ Film of the Year and Visually Striking Film of the Year from GALECA, the Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics. The film was also named one of the Top Ten Movies of 2019 by the Washington Blade.