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Portrait of a Director on a Hot Streak

With ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire,’ French filmmaker Céline Sciamma is now four films into an already impressive career—and on the verge of a breakthrough

Getty Images/Pyramide Films/Ringer illustration

Four movies, four moments.

A shy, inexperienced 15-year-old girl wants to join a synchronized swimming team because she’s infatuated by its star performer, who sparkles above the surface with a placid smile and delicate hand motions. When she straps on goggles and watches the routine from below, she can see the legs churning to keep them afloat, the invisible athleticism that serves as the engine of feminine pageantry.

A 10-year-old girl poses for her little sister. After moving to a new home, she’s decided on a whim to be a boy for the summer. She’s pulling it off, thanks to her ambiguous looks and rough-and-tumble playfulness. Her sister is drawing is a silly doodle, but it’s really the audience who gets to study this beautiful, uncertain creature and wonder who she’ll ultimately become.

A blackFrench teenager from a rough housing project in the Paris suburbs gets roped into a girl gang that often fights, steals, and provokes, but also gives her the strength and camaraderie that’s missing in her life. One night, they pool enough money to get a hotel room in the city, put on shoplifted dresses with the anti-theft tags still attached, and lip-synch joyously to Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” For a few precious minutes, she can forget everything.

On an isolated island in the late 18th century, a painter has been commissioned to do a wedding portrait. But because the bride-to-be has refused to pose for any artist, she has to observe her model in secret, on long walks by the sea and in conversation. One afternoon on a cliffside, wearing a mask protecting the bottom of her face from the ocean wind, the model shoots the painter a look so intense that their relationship is suddenly flush with new possibilities.

The director responsible for these moments—from Water Lilies, Tomboy, Girlhood, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire—is having a moment of her own. Céline Sciamma has been a presence on the festival circuit since her first film, especially in queer filmmaking circles, but with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, she’s poised for a breakthrough. In a Cannes competition that included near-career-best work from established auteurs like Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood), and Pedro Almodóvar (Pain and Glory), Portrait of a Lady on Fire was still rightly regarded as a standout, and it snuck away with Best Screenplay. And while Neon, the company that distributed Parasite, gave it an awards-qualifying release in December, it can now stand alone against the craggy backdrop of mid-February, post-Oscars, and give us a flash of the eyes.

‘A Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

Though all of Sciamma’s work has been distributed in the U.S.—and all three of her previous features are currently streaming on Criterion Channel—Portrait of a Lady on Fire will be an introduction for many, hopefully sending them scrambling back through her filmography. All three of her previous films are connected as her “coming of age trilogy,” each about girls at particularly vulnerable times of their lives, when they’re following an impulse that’s full of possibility, but teetering on the edge of disaster. They’re all about gender or sexual fluidity and the stresses of defining yourself against the rigid expectations of society. They’re contemporary stories, centuries removed from the electric love story at the center of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but they connect in the gulf between who their characters are expected to be and who they really are.

More than anything, Sciamma’s films are about freedom, those precious stretches of time when these girls and women can do whatever pleases them. These stretches can be as long as a summer or as short as a song—or in the case of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a few unsupervised days on an island. What’s moving and true about Sciamma’s work is that her characters are willing to risk everything for that time, even when they know that “Diamonds” is only four minutes long or that school is coming in the fall or that ships will eventually come to take them back to civilization. They can’t hold onto this feeling forever, but it’s theirs for however long it lasts.

“Cinema is the only art where you can share somebody’s loneliness,” Sciamma said in an interview at the BFI London Film Festival last year. That level of intimacy is apparent from the opening scenes of Water Lilies (2007), as Marie (Pauline Acquart) settles in to watch the Stade Français Swimmers, though her eyes are fixed on one swimmer in particular. Played by a young Adèle Haenel, who would later play the object of desire in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, too, Floriane is impossibly glamorous to Marie, though her “bad girl” reputation has turned her into a pariah on the team. A third girl, Anna (Louise Blachère), also obsesses over Floriane, but mostly out of jealousy over her boyfriend, who caught her undressing in the locker room and was slow to look away.

For Sciamma, synchronized swimming, the only Olympic sport without a male equivalent, is the ideal metaphor for the performance of being a woman: all makeup and smiles on the surface, made possible by unseen and unacknowledged labors below. Much like Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl six years before, Water Lilies is about the power dynamics between girls who take their insecurities out on each other, as well as the ruthless assessment of different body types and how that affects their sense of sexuality. No one benefits from these adolescent hangups, not even the conventionally pretty Floriane, who isn’t as experienced as everyone assumes and seems doomed to her own kind of loneliness.

There’s more pleasure in Sciamma’s exquisite Tomboy (2011), because 10-year-old Laure (Zoé Héran) gets to spend most of it as a child at play, even if she has to live with the anxious inevitability of being revealed as an imposter. It’s not quite accurate to call it trans cinema, because so much of Laure’s identity still seems up for grabs, but her instincts tell her to introduce herself as Mikäel to the like-aged kids in her new neighborhood. There’s a practical explanation for why Laure decides to be Mikäel: Most of the kids she sees outside are boys, so it’s a matter of assimilation; and because Laure is an athletic type who like to wear shorts and play soccer, it’s easier for her to assume the gender to which those qualities are most often ascribed.

Sciamma taps into the intuitive innocence of Laure’s summerlong experiment, though she doesn’t turn this question mark of a child into a period or exclamation point. Héran is a discovery, not only for the either-or look that allows her to straddle genders so persuasively, but for never seeming like an actor at all. Sciamma presents a world that’s inhospitable to kids like Laure—even her loving and attentive mother reacts to the big reveal in a less-than-progressive fashion—but the child herself doesn’t betray a whiff of self-consciousness. She’s just acting by feel.

Contrast that with 16-year-old Marieme (Karidja Touré) in Sciamma’s Girlhood, who’s painfully aware of who she’s supposed to be at every waking moment. The daughter of an absentee father, Marieme lives with her mother and siblings in a low-income project in a Paris banlieue, but with her mom logging long hours as a hotel housekeeper, she mostly contends with her older brother, who physically brutalizes her. She makes low grades at school, and the future seems to hold little promise. With nary a place to go, she joins a tough girl gang and gets into different kinds of trouble.

It’s a deflating irony that a lesser film about life in a Paris banlieue, Les Misérables, got submitted over Portrait of a Lady on Fire for this year’s Best International Feature Oscar. A few years earlier, Girlhood was a far subtler and more incisive film that received less attention. Marieme’s entrance into a gang presages some bad turns in her life, but Sciamma doesn’t impose judgment on these girls, who find solidarity and power (and fun) in each other while being stripped of it at home, at school, and in other institutions. Sciamma keys into the isolation of being a young black woman with no quarter, and makes sense of Marieme’s will to push against cultural forces that will push back twice as hard. She’s a diamond in the sky, unnoticed in a place where everyone keeps their head down.

With Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma takes a great leap forward in terms of scale and ambition, trading her delicate etchings of contemporary youth for a period piece that recalls Jane Campion’s The Piano in its untamed island setting and story of unrepressed passion in a deeply repressive time and place. The phrase “female gaze” has been used a lot to describe how Sciamma develops the spark between the painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Haenel), her elusive subject. It’s hard to define what that means, other than to say that Sciamma has made an explicit and sexy film that’s not a leering one: Marianne and Héloïse observe each other closely, Sciamma does likewise, and the looking becomes its own allure.

The one certainty that hangs over Portrait of a Lady on Fire is that Héloïse will do as she’s told and marry a Milanese nobleman, but she and Marianne have a few days when Héloïse’s mother is off the island and anything goes. Though heartbreak is inevitable—the denouement perfectly expresses Sciamma’s ideas of cinema and loneliness—their choice to live those few days without regard to the end is blissfully romantic, like the dusk-til-dawn love story of Before Sunrise if a sequel were never possible. On this island, the rules of society don’t apply to them, so what starts as a period piece turns into a transcendent science fiction where women get to write their own rules for a change.

For small windows of time, in these bubbles her characters create for themselves, Sciamma renders their elation in full. Her films may end on a note of uncertainty or heartbreak once those bubbles pop and society asserts its will again, but there’s something deeply romantic about the director’s sensibility. A film like Portrait of a Lady on Fire may have an air of tragic inevitability to it—a lesbian relationship wouldn’t survive in 18th-century high society, and Marianne and Héloïse don’t pretend otherwise—but it swoons at the possibilities. The girls and women in Sciamma’s work have cruel limits imposed on their desires, but she lets them flourish vividly for as long as they last.

Scott Tobias is a freelance film and television writer from Chicago. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Vulture, Variety, and other publications.