Céline Sciamma and Adèle Haenel: 'Films can be a refuge'

Portrait of a Lady on Fire dir. Céline Sciamma
Close Up North. We recommend the Oslo / Reykjavik 2 section Meet the Festival Jury

Portrait of a Lady on Fire, winner of the best screenplay award at Cannes, is the story of an intimate bond between two women: an aristocrat named Héloïse who is being forced to marry and a liberated painter named Marianne. This beautiful, subtle, yet emotionally charged melodrama opened this year's New Horizons International Film Festival in Wrocław. We talked with the director, Céline Sciamma, and one of the lead actresses, Adèle Haenel, about the film and the challenges they faced when making it.

An interview with Zdzisław Furgał | Papaya Rocks

The film's greatest strength seems to be the simplicity of the story.

Céline: Portrait of a Lady on Fire is by far the most difficult and the most rewarding thing I've ever done. I wanted to write something original, and it was a great challenge. I thought it would be an intimate story, but also penetrating and thrilling-and that I would dress it up in a costume. But making a historical period drama without basing the script on a book, someone's life, or a historical event is quite rare. I also didn't want to use the form of a romance; it was important for me to build the story slowly, drawing on the slow-burn genre. You say it's a simple story; for me, it's rather something honest that demands our focus. I wanted the on-screen emotions to build step by step.

Your screenplay is, on the one hand, very close to the conventions that we know, for example, from the novels of the Brontë sisters or Thomas Hardy, but on the other hand it breaks every possible rule. Was it supposed to be primarily a film about youth and love?

Céline: Not necessarily about youth. Héloïse and Marianne are no longer children or teenagers, although they sometimes indulge in playing. I wanted to show, rather, a relationship between two adult women that is based not on discovering their desires but on devoting themselves to them. Not on the appearance of a certain kind of feeling in a human being but building an adult relationship between people. This was also supposed to be symbolized by the protagonists' intellectual discussions.

Adèle, when we first meet your character, she's cold and mysterious. Even her first appearance is symbolic: She hides from the viewer, not revealing her face. Did you know right away how you would play Héloïse?

Adèle: I used a code and symbols. In the beginning, Héloïse uses her face as a mask. It's there, but it's also like it's not there. "It's me, but you have no idea who I am," she seems to be saying to Marianne. The situation in which she finds herself is not easy for her: She has to marry a man she doesn't know, against her will, of course. Moreover, her sister just committed suicide. If Héloïse wants to maintain her purity or independence, she has to do the same thing. But when the relationship between the protagonists deepens, when it becomes more intimate, her mask falls away. A new stage appears in the life of my character, and that's when I use other acting techniques. I start being less aloof, more spontaneous. Emotions sometimes reach their zenith, and her behavior picks up speed. Especially when she spends time with Marianne and Sophie.

The character of Sophie introduces a diversion and disturbs the intimate relationship between the two main characters. She's a simple girl who has no interest in rebelling like them. Was she in the script from the beginning?

Céline: Yes. I also wanted it to be a film about friendship, sisterhood, and solidarity between women. For the same reason, I also introduced the role of the mother. She's 50; she's neither old nor bitter. Just the opposite: she's beautiful, has her own dreams, and she's also sincere and honest. I wanted all these characters, though they are so different, to meet and talk on the same level. It was about disrupting the social hierarchy, creating a kind of utopia in which you want to live as a woman. Because, if you have enough luck in life, you can get through anything with your sisters by your side. I highly recommend this option (laughter).

This wasn't the first project you worked on together.

Céline: I made my first film, Water Lilies, with Adèle, in fact. That was 12 years ago. We try to be sensible and not to work with one another often, but because we are close, we take part in each other's artistic choices.

Adèle: When Céline is working on a new project, I know everything about it. She's also involved in every move I make, including the roles I choose. We share the creative process.

Is it easier when working on the set when you know each other so well?

Céline: There are things that we know about each other, but there are also others that we are just discovering. And we can still be surprised. I trust Adèle when it comes to building a character, creating it from scratch. I entrust everything to her imagination. The entire screenplay was created based on this feeling of trust. This allowed me to reach deeper, not to worry about everyday things or problems on the set. Adèle was like my compass.

Adèle: The bond we share is unusual. I often knew exactly what Céline was thinking about, and that enabled me to get more out of my character. But let's not forget that a good crew is also important on a film set. The one we worked with in Brittany, where Portrait of a Lady on Fire was made, was very much involved in the whole process. The cinematographer, Claire Mathon, was a great support for me.

Are you surprised by the good reception the film has received in Poland, in a country that is now experiencing a wave of intolerance? Portrait of a Lady on Fire will be shown in cinemas after the festival.

Céline: Not at all. Whenever there are radical and horrible things happening, that's where you can find the best audiences. Films can be a refuge for people. When political tensions are high and you have a community focused around a film and supporting, that allows you to let off some steam. So, it makes sense. Maybe it's even better to be here with Portrait of a Lady on Fire than in Los Angeles. Although we're going to go there as well (laughter).

Adèle: But we're starting with you.

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Read more about New Horizons on Papaya Rocks.

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