Céline Sciamma on the politics of French filmmaking and ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

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The French film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” traces the dawning of a passionate romance on a desolate island off the coast of France in the 18th century. 

Marianne, played by Noémie Merlant, is an artist who’s been summoned to the island to paint a portrait of the mysterious Heloise, played by Adèle Haenel. Heloise is to be married to an Italian merchant she’s never met, and her portrait will precede her arrival in Milan. 

After a difficult journey to the island, Marianne learns she’s not the first painter to have attempted the portrait. Heloise chased off another male artist by refusing to pose. 

Heloise’s mother tells Marianne she will have to work surreptitiously -- acting as a companion while studying her subject’s features to paint them later in secret. 

It’s not long before those searching looks (which Heloise reciprocates) lead to a romance that both women know can burn brightly -- but not forever.  

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is directed by Céline Sciamma. She talks about discovering that women painters and feminist art critics were thriving in the 1700s, and breaks down the detailed choreography that goes into planning sex scenes in her films.

Sciamma also tells us that in her home country, all eyes are on the upcoming César Awards, the Oscars of France. There’s a battle brewing:  her feminist lesbian drama will face off against the most recent movie from Roman Polanski. 

“We have this great system,” Sciamma says of filmmaking in France. “But this system has consequences. It’s the fact that it’s very bourgeois, very also old, white, male-driven, and I think there’s a resistance. And, you know, I understand why. We are dangerous.”



  • Céline Sciamma - Filmmaker, director of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”


Kim Masters


Kaitlin Parker