Danielle Mustarde meets the stars of this gorgeous new French flick ahead of its UK cinema release


Speaking at a BAFTA Screenwriter’s Lecture at the end of 2019, French screenwriter Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies, Tomboy, Girlhood) explains of her writing process: “I do have my way of doing it, I guess at this stage I could drop a central notion here: Desire. Writing is about… trying to build an architecture of multiple desires.” And it’s desire that’s precisely the foundation of her latest film, the gorgeous Portrait Of A Lady On Fire.

Portrait, which won both the Queer Palm and Best Screenplay at Cannes last year, follows the story of a young, female painter (Noémie Merlant; Return Of The Hero, La Fête Des Mères) who, after being sent to an isolated island in Bretagne, France, at the end of the 18th Century, is obliged to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman (Adèle Haenel; Water Lilies, 120 Beats Per Minute) in secret. With meticulously choreographed scenes, its untamed coastal setting and, indeed, Sciamma’s oh-so-carefully crafted “architecture of multiple desires”, Portrait is an experience to succumb to. 

Once we’d caught our breath following a screening one bright December morning last year, we were lucky enough to sit down with lead actors, Adèle and Noémie, the 30-year-old Parisians who portray the painted, Héloïse, and the painter, Marianne, at the core of Céline Sciamma’s physically fleeting, emotionally enduring love story…

DIVA: Bonjour Noémie, Adèle. What is the story of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, in your own words?

NOÉMIE & ADÈLE: There’s a love story at the core that, in a way, hasn’t been shown. [Portrait] is about art, it’s about taking the space back, it is a new vision. It’s about how equality is exciting and how we can base love on this, much more than on domination. It’s a film about the female gaze. It’s a film about the integrations of love, work and art in both the past and present.

Why were you were drawn to this film, as actors?

ADÈLE: For me, I cannot say that there was one reason. First, I was happy to work with Céline again [as well as dating for a time, Adèle and Céline worked together on Water Lilies], then, because of the #MeToo movement and the rise of feminism all over the planet – and we needed this level of rising to notice something that it so huge it’s amazing we didn’t notice before – it’s the fact that there is no film with only women, it doesn’t exist. It’s something so big but we don’t even see it. It’s almost funny how blind we can be. That was one of the reasons I wanted to come onboard. Actually, I would not not have been on board.

NOÉMIE: When I read the script, I felt the power of what was in it, of this love story but also that it’s something we’ve missed in history. Women’s histories, intimacies. This spoke to me and I’m sure it speaks to a lot of people. [I felt], this is something I need to do. But also, it’s about the expedition of acting and finding new shapes. It’s not all about politics, it’s mostly about art. It’s a new sensation and we see that we will have space. It’s new images… the sex scene was in the script and I thought, this is new and exciting. The way it was written… this is a movie where you take the time to get the fire burning. We [had] time to just look at each other and let it grow, the searching and the breathing. We [had] a lot of time and space. And all the details in the movie [are given more space] with this delay and restriction… it’s [about] using your imagination. It’s erotic. 

To put it very simply, it’s an hour and a half of pure tension followed by something like bittersweet heartbreak. Crucially though, neither character is killed off. 

ADÈLE: But it’s more than that. It’s not just that nobody dies. Love doesn’t die. I think, the end of the movie isn’t “bad”. It’s a right way to be sad. It’s not like, “Oh, it will never happen again,” it’s like, “Oh, it’s just how love and art can change you forever.” This way, you can have a new love story after that. It’s not like the earth is burnt. You keep on inventing because you went through such a love story. You’re a better version of yourself. To me, [it’s not] sad in the same way that somebody dies, it’s sad because sometimes emotions can be, [but] you can be joyful at the same time. And, because often lesbian [characters] die in movies, [not having the characters die] is one of the most important elements of the movie – to change that [trope], to change our relationship to our own love story. Maybe it’s not a failure when a love story ends. Maybe it lives within you and changes you forever, because being human means evolution.

You mentioned the sex scene earlier, Noémie. While speaking at the British Film Institute earlier, a male journalist suggested to Céline that there “isn’t a sex scene” in the film. What do you say to that?

ADÈLE: Use your imagination. It’s so much more erotic when you have a new image of sex, it demands you use your imagination – then you’re a part of the scene. [It’s] like a game that we propose. My answer [to that comment] is that I feel sorry for them. I have the feeling that they think that love is when a man has sex with a woman for five minutes, he ejaculates and then it’s over. We’ve found new shades. Love and imagination are very closely bound. I would prefer this sexuality to the one that is portrayed in most movies, which to me seems a bit pathetic because it’s boring. Maybe if you see that [the scene in Portrait] is actually poetic, you can change and have a great sexuality afterwards. 

What has the reception been in France? [Where, at the time of interview, people were protesting against single women and lesbians accessing IVF treatments].

ADÈLE: They are not our friends, obviously. We are not on the same team. I would say, they don’t want us to exist. We didn’t think we were [so] avant-garde, we thought we were more common, but we are very avant-garde because French society is very conservative. They are not coming to see the movie anyway. 

Hopefully, some of those people will see it by chance. Perhaps it’ll help to change their views.

ADÈLE: There are still people going to see it. I feel so sorry for those people who are so violent to themselves [as to purposefully not]. I’m sure they have a sexuality as well. 

In the last scene, a powerful long-take which sees Marianne observe Héloïse from afar, why doesn’t Marianne approach her?

NOÉMIE: We wanted to portray… a journey. The character would love and that love would change them forever. It’s not about just getting back together. It’s about living with the other person within you. Your life, because you met this woman, changes forever. And you will be a better lover afterwards, a better person. It is a happy ending. It’s just a different [kind of] happy ending. 

Is that why it’s so affecting, do you think? 

NOÉMIE: It’s a new vision, a true vision of love. [It’s about] giving faith to the other.

Is this new, true vision a queer one?

ADÈLE: It’s uniquely queer. We are lucky that we are out of the heterosexual order, at least I think so. But the entire world isn’t in our bedroom, you know? We need new stories to be told. Not being told the same story about love. It’s philosophical and I think it is our responsibility to create new stories for people to base their lives on. 

Queer stories? 

ADÈLE: Everyone should be queer right now. 

This article first appeared in the March 2020 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!

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