Portrait of a Lady on Fire is way more than just a period piece

We spoke with Adèle Haenel, star of Céline Sciamma’s new movie, about overcoming our own prejudices for period pieces and the way the film looks (literally) at love.

In Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Adèle Haenel plays Héloïse, a young woman who lives in partial seclusion on an island in Brittany.

Héloïse is meant to be married off to an Italian nobleman. Tradition suggests that women who are to be married should be painted first, which Héloïse has always resisted. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired as a “companion” for Héloïse, who doesn’t know that she has in fact been tasked to paint her in secret. As they spend days, then weeks together, the two women grow increasingly closer — even after Héloïse sees the “secret” painting that results. Their friendship soon blossoms into a full-blown love affair, which, as you can imagine, is not the kind of thing that flies in 18th-century France.

Discussing the film with Haenel at TIFF last September, I brought up my own aversion to period pieces set in the general era of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. They always strike me as stately and polite and hermetic, as if they weren’t showcasing flesh-and-blood humans but distant historical ideals of them. That’s not something that affects Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which finds a delicate balance between the repression and passion at the core of its story.

“I think that when we talk about period pieces, we put a stress on reconstitution,” says Haenel. “I think reconstitution is central, but there’s a supposition that veracity is the core goal, but in fact what we’re reconstituting is the world we want to see. I think what can be annoying is that all period pieces are draped in this kind of permanent respect or something to that effect – a type of restraint that makes it feel as if the people in it aren’t even really alive. It’s too complicated, in fact, to do that. For this particular film, reconstitution was a major challenge. We needed to know what we were talking about. To give you an example: women smoke in the film. Women drink alcohol. That’s all it takes for someone to go ‘Oh, these people are alive, and that’s not what we’re used to seeing!’ It’s not just about, you know, tons of candles and every other cliché you might associate with the period piece.”

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is very much about the act of seeing, about how Marianne has to constantly look at Héloïse without letting her know why she’s looking, how Héloïse and Marianne look at each other, how everyone else looks at them and how sometimes the very act of seeing someone is more than enough. Sciamma lets these scenes play out in long but sparse takes — long shots in which almost nothing happens and the viewer is left to simply see, as the characters do.

“Every shot does have a meaning, but this movie isn’t about making each shot one-dimensional,” she explains. “It’s not just about putting forth information for the plot, it’s about showcasing moments in a life. It’s very sensual, in fact. That’s what looking at someone is about. It’s not about immediately drawing meaning from them, it’s also about acknowledging that there’s something infinite in a person. Céline’s eye is very precise. The film takes its time, because in order to really see someone, you have to take the time.”

One would also expect Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be a tragedy, or, at least lean heavily on the tragic implications of forbidden love, rapidly hurtling towards an inevitable downer ending. Without saying too much, it’s extremely refreshing to see a film about a homosexual love story set hundreds of years ago that isn’t about that.

“The film is very open, as far as I’m concerned,” says Haenel. “It’s not about the fatality of love — it’s not saying that you can’t survive that kind of love, or that women specifically are somehow less capable of surviving that kind of love story. It says, ‘Sure, these women are prevented from living their true lives, but they totally have the capacity and desire and hunger to live.’ That’s what the movie is about: about the hunger for love, the desire to be in love and to live through a relationship. It’s very alive in that sense. If there’s a bigger message in the film and the places the film takes us, it’s that love doesn’t stop when conjugality ends, right? Meeting someone brings us somewhere and allows us to become a bigger version of ourselves — and that’s very contemporary as an idea.” ■


Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Feb. 14. Watch the trailer below.

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