Somewhere on a Breton island during the 18th century, painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is secretly commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the daughter of a countess (Valeria Golino) promised to a Milan nobleman. Héloïse initially shies away, refusing to sit for the painter, before engaging with and defying her. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma has once again depicted the emergence of desire.
Sciamma, 40, is a leading name in French arthouse cinema, and grew up in one of the middle-class families who moved to the new town of Cergy-Pontoise near Paris. She sees Virginia Woolf as the “greatest novelist,” Belgian director Chantal Akerman as one of the most important filmmakers, and has been heavily influenced by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
Sciamma has made just four movies over twelve years: Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011), Girlhood (2014), and her most recent work. All of them focus on youth, identity, gender, class relations, and the place and love of women. After training at the prestigious Parisian cinema school La Fémis, she worked as a screenwriter on the fantasy series Les Revenants (2012-2015) – adapted in the U.S. as The Returned (2015) – and André Techiné’s 2016 movie Being 17.
The following year, she wrote the screenplay for My Life as a Zucchini, Claude Barras’ animated movie nominated at the 2017 Oscars. Water Lilies, her first feature-length film with actress Adèle Haenel, was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. At the same event last year, Portrait of a Lady on Fire won the Award for Best Screenplay.
In the United States, where every single one of Sciamma’s movies has been released in theaters, the critics are even more demonstrative. Named as one of the five best international movies by the National Board of Review, her latest work was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Golden Globes. From the New Yorker and Variety to the Los Angeles Times, the U.S. press highlights the central role given to women by Sciamma in her films, particularly in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. “The very nature of women’s art and the marginalization of women in the art world are built into the movie via a subplot (an unwanted pregnancy and an abortion) in a way that echoes unmistakably with the present day,” writes Richard Brody in the New Yorker.
Splitting her time between writing fiction and filming movies, Sciamma also plays soccer with the LGBT+ club Baston et Courtoisie (“Brawls and Courtesy”). She is a big fan of Megan Rapinoe, captain of the 2019 World Cup-winning U.S. national soccer team and an activist for women’s, LGBT+, and minority rights. Since Carol Hanisch, one of the founders of the Women’s Liberation Movement, we have realized that “the personal is political.”
Sciamma writes and directs femi-nist movies with the simple ambition of changing the perspective of cinema. Portrait of a Lady on Fire enables her to pay homage to artists forgotten by history and to deconstruct the logics of domination traditionally associated with masculine viewpoints and creator-muse relationships.
Article published in the February 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.