Our latest episode of the Seventh Row podcast is the perfect companion piece to our new ebook, Portraits of Resistance, which focuses on Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Editor-in-Chief Alex Heeney is joined by Executive Editor Orla Smith and Associate Editor Brett Pardy to discuss Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady of Fire, a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of our new book, and reader reactions.
Listen to the podcast on Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Setting Portrait of a Lady on Fire in the 1700s allowed Céline Sciamma to create a heightened romance, what she referred to at TIFF as “cinema plus plus”: the costumes had to be carefully chosen because everyone wore the same thing throughout, the setting became all the more important and romantic, and the stakes for the romance were higher, too. Like Call Me by Your Name before it, Portrait is the story of a queer romance bound to a particular place and time — that it has an expiration date makes it no less intense or important. The winner of the Cannes Best Screenplay prize, Portrait is a masterclass in structure.
The winner of the Cannes Best Screenplay prize, Portrait is a masterclass in structure. When Alex interviewed Sciamma about Girlhood, she talked about wanting to create the “desire to see a face” or “the appetite for [a] face.” Sciamma pushes this to the extreme in Portrait, creating immense suspense in our desire to see Héloīse (Adèle Haenel), the noble woman that Marianne (Noémie Merlant) has been commissioned to paint. We track Marianne on a long journey to Héloīse’s home, and then hear about Héloīse from everyone she knows. Even the first time she appears on screen, we follow her from behind, on tenterhooks for her to turn around and show us her face.
The film explores women’s limited opportunities in the 1700s, the forgotten female artists of the time, the consequences of indulging one’s sexuality with men (a subplot involves multiple abortive attempts), and finally, the egalitarian love that two women can find in each other. At the same time, Sciamma deliberately upends any ideas of artistic muses. Marianne may start out thinking Héloīse is merely her subject — a feeling heightened by the fact that she must observe her closely in order to paint her in secret — but Sciamma reminds us Héloīse is observing Marianne, too. The romance that follows feels contemporary even as it’s believably rooted in the constrictions of the day.
Show notes and Recommended Reading
- Preview or purchase our new ebook Portraits of Resistance
- Listen to our podcast episode on finite romances, featuring Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
- Preview or purchase the other ebooks we discussed on the episode: Documentary Masters volume 1, Lean on Pete, Peterloo, and The Souvenir, and The Canadian Cinema Yearbook 2019 (feat. Mouthpiece).
- Alex interviewed Graduation director Christian Mungiu about sound editing
- Read the interview that started it all: Alex talking with Céline Sciamma at Sundance 2015 about Girlhood.