Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)

This interview with the director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire took place at Cannes where it premiered in competition and won Céline Sciamma the prize for Best Screenplay and the Queer Palm. The full interview will appear in the November-December 2019 issue of Film Comment.

To what degree were you thinking about the many movies that have been made about a male artist and the woman who inspired him?

I didn’t have to think much about that because basically we know by heart the story as it has been told so far, so I didn’t have to craft my answer to that. I wanted to tell another story, not didactically, but in very emotional, sentimental, political ways. At the center of the film is this idea that there is no muse, or that it’s a beautiful word for hiding the reality of how women have been collaborating with artists. I wanted to portray the intellectual dialogue and not to forget that there are several brains in the room. We see how art history reduces the collaboration between artists and their companions: before, a muse was this fetishized, silent, beautiful woman sitting in the room, whereas we now know that Dora Maar, the “muse” of Picasso, was this great Surrealist photographer. And Gabrièle Buffet-Picabia, the companion of Picabia, was intensely involved in his evolution. I wanted to portray the reality of that in the process of actually making a film in strong collaboration with my actresses.

And was that collaboration different, or more consciously a collaboration, than in your earlier films?

Yes, mostly because so far I’ve only worked with very young casts that were nonprofessional—kids or teenagers that I chose who became actresses in front of the camera. It’s not the same job at all because when you work with nonprofessionals you are totally in charge of their limits and there is no negotiating with that, so there is this strong responsibility. Whereas with grown women and professional actresses there are no limits and you can be surprised by the collaboration between them. So it’s not even the same job. It’s really the step I wanted to take with this film.

Don’t miss Film Comment’s presentation of Portrait of a Lady on Fire at the 57th New York Film Festival on September 29 and 30.