The Céline Sciamma Q&A

On the eve of its Valentine’s Day wide release, Dominic Corry puts your questions to the writer and director of our highest-rated romance film of the decade, Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

It’s a new narrative of love.” —⁠Céline Sciamma

Few films have more hearts beating on Letterboxd lately than Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which has a 4.4 average rating, was second only to Parasite as the highest-rated feature film of 2019, and holds the number one position on our official Top 100 Narrative Feature Films by Women Directors.

“This is one of the most emotionally intense viewing experiences I’ve had in a while, so I’m not ready to sum it up with a neat and tidy star rating,” wrote Trudie. “My body is still visibly shaken… yearning personified,” said Lucy. “I’m going to think about those last fifteen minutes for the rest of my life,” swooned Stephanie, speaking for us all.

Starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, the film had a short Oscar-qualifying run in American theaters at the end of last year, and although it was criminally overlooked by the Academy (it was not France’s submission for International Feature, though it is up for ten Césars), it’s finally going wide on American screens on Valentine’s Day.

As a giant fan, it was a huge honor to personally convey all the Letterboxd love for Portrait of a Lady on Fire to Sciamma, and to take with me several of your questions. (Lucy, we read your entire comment to her: “I just wanted to thank Céline for Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It holds a very special place in my heart now and is my favorite film of the decade. I’m truly, eternally grateful.”)

Spoiler warning: several questions reference the nature of the film’s ending, without getting into specifics. And a warning for easy fainters: Kristen Stewart may have been brought up during this interview; and Céline has been reading your Letterboxd reviews.

Adèle Haenel (left) and Noémie Merlant in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Adèle Haenel (left) and Noémie Merlant in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

What would you like to say to your Letterboxd fans who have fallen so completely in love with your film?
Céline Sciamma: Well thank you! No, but really. Because what touched me the most is the fact that people will write about films. And that’s the beauty of this digital era. I’m paying a lot of attention about what’s going on around the film, what is being said. I’m really looking at things, so I’ve seen a lot of Letterboxd [reviews]. And I’ve seen that Letterboxd, at some point, used the emoji thing, which was really, really beautiful and fun [Sciamma is referring to the fire and picture frame emoji we added to our Twitter name at the time of the film’s release last year].

And the fact that people who were touched by the film would take the time to write about it, I think it’s something really beautiful, especially with this film, which is about how love is an education to art. Because art consoles from love, or makes us greater lovers. I find it beautiful that people would express their feelings and put their heart and their mind into cinema. As a young cinephile there was no internet, and I remember writing, just only for myself in little diaries, about film. And so I found it really, really important.

There’s one question we like to ask every filmmaker we speak to: what is the film that made you want to become a filmmaker?
Well, the film that made me understand filmmaking, mise-en-scène, was The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Jacques Demy, as a director, his films in France, we see them when we are very young; he made Peau d’âne, which is a film that is shown to kids. He is such a great director. Definitely as a young kid—I was twelve years old—I found out that, okay, there’s somebody behind this with a vision. Somebody would paint a city like in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. Somebody would paint a wall to make it sing the vision of somebody.

And when discovering mise-en-scène—the fact that there was a director, a vision of somebody—it really blew my mind. I remember I fell in love with the idea of cinema. So, you know, it’s not one film that makes you want to be a director. There are some films that connect you to the idea of cinema and vision and just make you crave for this idea.

Before this interview, we asked our community to submit questions for you. The first is from Letterboxd member ‘I’, who wants to know if you were inspired by any movie in the process of making Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
When I’m writing a film, or just even just going with the idea of starting to dream about a film, I don’t watch films anymore, because it’s a very fragile moment. I’m trying to be candid and I’m trying to create this prototype and not to begin being in dialogue with the history of cinema.

But then when the script is done, and especially when we are talking with the team, with the DP, there are some films that can come up in the discussion. “Okay, we should we should take a look at that,” regarding one specific issue. For instance, with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, regarding the lighting, there was this idea, I mean you could definitely look at all the period-piece films and be like, “What about the candles? Are they in the frame? Are there a lot of candles? Are they on chandeliers? Or are they held?”

So, I’m thinking about that, this issue of the light in the candles. Night. Day. So me and [cinematographer] Claire Mathon, we had that discussion. So Kubrick, Barry Lyndon, we watched obviously.

And also at that moment I’m trying to watch, not specifically films that seem to be related, but films that give me faith in cinema. For instance, Jeanne Dielman by Chantal Akerman, which is such a radical film. I’m trying to get radical positions that have nothing to do with the film, subject-wise, but of people who firmly believed in the language of cinema, and were radical about it. I’m trying to watch radical films that renew your faith in cinema. I mean, they’re major pieces of art, but just give this feeling that you can be radical, you can be bold, and to get this excitement about, really, the language of cinema.

Many of our members are writing that Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the most romantic film ever made, and one of the best expressions of female desire ever put on screen. What’s the most romantic film you’ve ever seen?
You know, it’s weird because when I think about it… film is emotional right? A lot of the things that come to my mind are films that are not necessarily pure love stories. This is gonna sound stupid, but E.T., for instance, is a great love story. This is a great love story for me, and one of the greatest endings in terms of how a relationship ends: E.T. has this idea that the breakup between the two characters is… they want the same thing. And that’s why they’re breaking up, because one is saying “come” and one is saying “stay”, which I think is the most heartbreaking breakup, not being a breakup.

I think there might be a new contender for most heartbreaking breakup.
The ending of it is really climaxing. Because when we watch love stories, it’s harder, the frozen image of two people leaving in a car, you know, marriage, whatever. Like the romantic-comedy ending where they end up together, then that’s the end. Eternal possession as a promise of fulfilment. Or, it’s the tragic ending, where they will never [be together]. And I really tried to find another way [in Portrait of a Lady on Fire], like in E.T. you know, it’s two people saying “I love you” but not being together. It’s a new narrative of love.

So I’m always trying also to think about forms. Mulholland Drive is a film that definitely was also an inspiration, because it’s a film that creates its storytelling around an idea of love. Everybody said: “Oh this film is so hard to get”. [But] it’s really simple. It’s like the first part is a dream of a story that has already happened. And so Lynch created this, screenwriting-wise, he created this idea that those two women, they meet and suddenly they’re in bed together and one says “I think I’m in love with you”, which means that Lynch is telling us that “I love you” is always something you say in the past. And with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I was thinking I have to create a form where “I love you” is something that always has a future. So that’s the kind of dialogue I have with films that inspire me.

And also Titanic. It has kind of the same structure as Portrait of a Lady on Fire: the presence of a love story but the memory of a love story. And also, not being together even though there’s a tragic death. It’s a love story about emancipation. And that’s so much what we’re trying to tell: it’s not about whether you end up together, or you don’t. A good love story isn’t about that, it’s about: did it give you emancipation?

This last question is from Pauline: “How much do I need to pay you to hire Kristen Stewart—who has just said Portrait was her favorite movie of 2019 and that she has seen all of your movies—in your next project? I’m ready to write the check, just say a number.”
Well no, it’s not about the money. But I met Kristen Stewart a few months ago. So I mean, it’s already a start. We talked about cinema, and, and I really enjoyed talking about cinema with her, so…

Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is in select US theaters now, and on wide release from 14 February. This interview took place in the English language and has had minor edits for clarity. With thanks to NEON, Cinetic Media and Ginsberg/Libby

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