Since her shimmering, shattering period romance “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” premiered to rapturous acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, its director Céline Sciamma has had some time to consider the passionate response.
“I think it’s because it’s a love story,” Sciamma said in an interview on a sunny terrace in Cannes. “You can get some love back. It’s kind of beautiful, actually.”
The French filmmaker’s movie has arguably provoked more ardor than anything else in Cannes. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” has been hailed as a masterpiece not just for the tender relationship it depicts between the young painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and her portrait subject, Heloise (Adéle Haenel), in 18th century France, but for its resonate and acutely contemporary portrait of female identity as reflected in art.
In the film, Marianne has been hired by Heloise’s mother to paint her daughter’s portrait for her marriage to a Milanese man she’s never met. Heloise, a fiercely independent young woman, resents both the wedding and the portrait, so Marianne, posing as a companion, must steal glances to capture her. It’s a movie built subversively through looks and glimpses. A love develops, one seen and rendered through a woman’s eyes.
Sciamma was inspired to make the film by forgotten women who painted, mostly other women, in the 1700s. For her, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is about reclaiming the past lives and art of women.
“There was no transmission of our memory, and art is about portraying life,” she says. “We’ve been cut off of our intimacy because we’ve not been told our story. I’ve missed those images. They’ve been missing from my life.”
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is likewise a movie that had been missing. Like Marianne and Heloise, Sciamma, 40, is seeking new imagery of women’s lives.
“It’s an opportunity for new sensations in the theaters, a new excitement, new journeys,” says Sciamma. “It’s a reservoir of emotions, new buttons that will be pushed.”
Sciamma is a founder of the collective 50/50×2020, the French sister group to Time’s Up, which has pressed the French film industry and Cannes to improve gender equality. Sciamma has been coming to Cannes since 2007 when her debut, “Water Lilies,” also a coming-of-age tale where paintings plays a role, screened in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section.
But she was last here to help 50/50×2020 organize a demonstration in 2018 on the Cannes red-carpet steps and to get Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux to sign a pledge for parity and transparency in its selection process. The festival this year for the first time released gender statistics on its submissions. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is one of four out of 21 films in Cannes’ main lineup directed by a woman, a number that ties Cannes’ previous high.
Asked whether her art and activism are linked, Sciamma responds: “I have no choice. To me, life and activism are connected.”
In the 72 years of Cannes, female directors have seldom appeared in competition, and no female filmmaker has ever outright won the festival’s prestigious top honor, the Palme d’Or. In 1993, Jane Campion’s “The Piano” won the Palme in a tie with Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine.”
This year, Sciamma could go from protester to Palme d’Or winner.
“It’s not about what it means to me. It would mean a lot for a lot of people. That would be the most important,” she says. “It wouldn’t belong to me that much.”
The Palme will be decided by the jury presided over by Alejandro Iñárritu in an awards ceremony Saturday. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is already riding high, though. On Wednesday, it was acquired by Neon and Hulu, with plans for a fall release in North America and a robust awards campaign. Even one of the other filmmakers in competition in Cannes, the Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan, hailed the film as “magnificent.”
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was made with a female producer, cinematographer, first-assistant director, costume designer, make-up artist and others. Walking the red carpet, they collectively cut a seldom, if ever, seen image in Cannes. Sciamma calls “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” a kind of culmination.
“In a way, it sums it all,” she says. “It feels full. It feels like home.”