Woman on Fire

West Coast editor Dominic Corry sits down with one of the leading women of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

We don’t smile because we have to smile, because we’re ladies. No, when we smile, we really smile.” —⁠Noémie Merlant

French actor Noémie Merlant is the audience’s guide into the world of Céline Sciamma’s devastatingly romantic period drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a film that presents “a new narrative of love”, as Sciamma told us in this earlier conversation.

Merlant stars as Marianne, an artist who arrives on a remote island in Brittany to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel, who also appeared in Sciamma’s 2007 film, Water Lilies). Marianne was hired by Héloïse’s countess mother, played by Valeria Golino, and the purpose of the painting is to convince a prospective husband in Rome that Héloïse is worth marrying.

Resistant to her assigned fate and recently returned from a convent, Héloïse has refused to sit for the previous artists hired for the job, so Marianne must discreetly observe her during the day under the pretense of being a walking companion, then paint her portrait at night. Marianne is initially presented as someone with a large degree of self-possession, but that composure begins to crumble as she becomes closer to Héloïse.

One of the (many) great joys of Sciamma’s film is witnessing Marianne succumb to the passion Héloïse inspires in her. She starts out as someone who thinks she knows herself, but soon realizes how much her view of the world has been shaped by the narrow confines society places upon women. Merlant conveys these complex emotions masterfully, and her chemistry with Haenel is beautiful to behold.

Dominic Corry sat down with Merlant prior to the wide American release of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (and just before the Sundance premiere of Jumbo, Zoé Wittock’s new fantasy-drama, in which Merlant’s character develops feelings for a tilt-a-whirl attraction at a theme park). They discussed Portrait preparation, Merlant’s upcoming directorial feature debut, Titanic and John Cassavetes.

What have you made of the passionate reaction that Portrait of a Lady on Fire has inspired online?
Noémie Merlant: We’re so excited, all together, with Céline and Adele, for this love that is shared to us. I think this movie is so important in what it says, what it shows about the world, about new experiences. To realize that people are happy to live this experience, this quite new experience, because it’s a new vision, it tells so much about the world now, I think, and so it’s great.

Marianne seems to know herself in a way that is hugely inspirational, at least in the beginning. Is that how you saw the character?
Yeah. I see myself in a lot of Marianne because at the beginning, she knows what she wants and what she does, but at the same time she does this first portrait, and this portrait is not right. Because it’s a portrait that is kind of stuck in a vision of the male gaze in the society. She [doesn’t] even realize that. She is so grateful to have the chance to be a painter, to not have to be married, so she wants to respect the rules, the ideas, the conventions, as she says.

And it’s this collaboration with Héloïse and this desire and this love that grows that makes her realize that it’s not her own vision of her art. It’s not the right vision of Héloïse, but it’s even more not the vision of her own art sensibility. And so, the script and Céline’s vision is, for me, what Héloïse is for Marianne: it wakes me up. I’m in a vision of the patriarchal world and I didn’t even notice it. Really, like deeply, concretely, I didn’t even notice it. And this is a movie with—like the second portrait—with a female gaze, a new vision, a new experience that shows really an experience with women.

This film is so quiet, it’s a subtle film, and yet it has an explosive power. Was that a dynamic you were conscious of on set when you were filming?
Yeah. It’s like the music: this movie is really silent, there is no music. There’s just two [scenes with] music. And so when there [is] music, it’s even more powerful and even more loud. If there was music all the time in the movie, then you don’t have the same [impact]. And so this movie is all about this, because it takes the time to build. Like, we don’t talk much and [so] when we talk, we really listen to each other. When we smile, we smile because we want to smile, because it’s sincere. We don’t smile because we have to smile, because we’re ladies, no, when we smile, we really smile. And all this slow building of desire and frustration grows the desire, more and more. I think we were really realizing that on set. Yeah. Completely.

What kinds of conversations did you have with Céline before shooting began? Could you describe the nature of your collaboration?
The script is so full—everything is there in the script. We didn’t have to talk much, because her vision is clear and I understood it, like everybody [who read] it did. And so while I met her in real life for the audition, and she was watching, like looking at me and reading Héloïse’s lines, then I understood even more that her vision in the movie is her vision in life and how she wants to create the collaboration is the same as in the movie. She was in front of me, she read Héloïse’s lines, and she’s not somewhere looking at me like a director with someone else giving me the lines, no, she is here in front of me. And there was equality, and there was respect.

And that was the beginning of our relationship. It’s how she builds relationships with everybody on set. And so we didn’t really rehearse before the shooting because there is so many restrictions already. We have to follow the dialogue, the gazes, the breathing, the movement. There is the focus [pulling, which was] really complicated, because there [were] a lot of candles. All the costumes, a lot of restrictions so she doesn’t want us to cerebralize too much and rehearse too much. She wanted us keep something fresh and alive and present. I based my relationship with Héloïse as Adele and I were in parallel.

At the beginning of the movie, the dresses are tight, we don’t smile, we observe a lot, there is a lot of restriction. And then more and more we build and we start to feel our desire and follow our desire, more and more the movements are large. The smile appears. The eyes are more sparkling, you know, it’s all about details and that’s what we wanted to build on top of the mask that we have at the beginning.

You’ve recently made your directorial debut.
I did a short movie [Shakira] that is not out yet, and in December I decided to do what we call a “pirate movie” without production or without looking for money, with my own money. It’s just a couple of friends and [other] people and now I am in post production of this long movie [Mi Lubita]. The short movie is coming out soon I think.

Luàna Bajrami (left) and Noémie Merlant in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Luàna Bajrami (left) and Noémie Merlant in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

What was the film that made you want to become an actor?
The film that made me want to become a good actor was [John Cassavetes’] Opening Night. I knew that I wanted to be an actress, but… I realized what an actress is with that movie.

What was the film that made you want to become a director?
Cassavetes was one of my big inspirations, but Bergman too, I would say his Persona.

What’s your go-to comfort movie?
A movie I watch when I want to feel better? I would say Pretty Woman or Titanic. It’s sad but I feel better when I see it.

What’s your guilty pleasure movie?
It’s more a series. I love, Peaky Blinders. And I love Girls. Girls is what I’m up to.

What film poster did you have on your wall when you were a teenager?
Titanic.

What’s a film you have fond memories of watching with your parents?
It’s a French movie called Le Père Noël est un ordure, with Christian Clavier and Josiane Balasko. It’s an old funny movie we watch every Christmas.

What filmmaker, living or dead, do you envy, or admire the most?
Well there are a lot. Cassavetes is one of them. Céline is one of them. Agnès Varda is one of them. Bergman.

Is there a movie that always makes you cry?
Titanic. Remembering, like, really the first experience in cinema was Titanic for me.

Celine brought up that film when I spoke to her as well.
Sometimes when we were shooting, you know when Adèle is on the stairs? We were like, “This is our Titanic scene”.

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