How the women of 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' put a new spin on sex and smiling in French cinema

Mark Olsen, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

A period movie so alive with ideas and emotions it feels like it is taking place in the present tense, "Portrait of a Lady On Fire" has been igniting viewers around the world for the better part of a year.

Written and directed by Celine Sciamma, the film won the screenplay prize and the Queer Palm award when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last summer, and has since been nominated for 10 Cesar awards, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and a Spirit Award and picked up numerous critics prizes, including recognition for cinematographer Claire Mathon.

Set in late 1700s-Brittany, "Portrait" follows a young female artist, Marianne (Noemie Merlant), hired to paint a portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel), recently out of a convent and expected to marry a man she has never met. The job is harder than it sounds: Marianne is told to paint the headstrong Heloise without her knowing, as she already refused to sit for another painter. Spending time together at a remote chateau near the seaside, the two women form a fast, intense bond and begin to fall in love.

The film is a spellbinding romance but also has a lot more on its mind. Notions of art and representation, who gets to tell stories and what stories get told, becomes a vital part of the narrative. After Marianne and Heloise help a servant girl named Sophie (Luana Bajrami) get an abortion, Heloise insists that Marianne paint a depiction of the event.

After a brief qualifying run at the end of last year, "Portrait" was moved to begin its nationwide platform release on Valentine's Day, taking it out of the crush of year-end awards titles and into a position that capitalized on its deeply felt romance. "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is now truly a film for lovers.

By now, Sciamma has already promoted "Portrait" through numerous international releases and estimates she has done more than 350 interviews on behalf of the film.


"The box office, it really matters for me," she said. "I want the film to be seen in theaters by people. So the fact that there's this alternative strategy with the release in February, departing from the awards season, it's fine because the most important thing for me is that people see it."

The movie is being released by Neon, the savvy distributor behind Bong Joon Ho's best picture winner "Parasite." On Oscars night Sciamma was seen congratulating Bong at an after-party and Bong then returned the favor by acknowledging the success of "Portrait" in South Korea during a speech at a late-night after-after party at a restaurant in Koreatown.

Indeed, "Portrait" has emerged as the biggest international success yet for Sciamma, a leading light of contemporary French cinema whose credits include 2011's "Tomboy," 2014's "Girlhood" and the screenplay for 2016's Oscar-nominated animated feature "My Life as a Zucchini."

Haenel previously worked with Sciamma on the director's 2007 debut "Water Lilies" and has gone on to be among France's most celebrated young actresses and a two-time Cesar award winner. The pair were in a romantic relationship for a number of years after "Water Lilies" but had publicly split before starting work on "Portrait."


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