It doesn’t take long for Heloise to guess what Marianne does alone at night behind a curtain in her room, but by that time a dance of recognition between the two women has progressed to mutual fascination. Heloise willingly sits for the portrait; its purpose no longer matters. Under Marianne’s scrutiny, the pent-up anger gradually leaves Heloise’s face.
‘‘I really tried to create a character who was changing herself through the look,’’ Haenel says. ‘‘There was a tracking shot in my mind through the acting, if that makes any sense. It’s like she has a mask and is slowly trying to take it off.’’ At the same time, Marianne and Heloise are falling in love. Both know that the forthcoming marriage is inevitable, but it seems irrelevant. They are living in a bubble of time where reality is temporarily suspended.
Sciamma’s previous films (Water Lilies, Tomboy, Girlhood) have been resolutely contemporary stories of girls in their teens, busy with forming a sense of themselves, their relationships and the whirl of city life. Moving back 250 years, she was conscious of a change of pace – there are very few edits within scenes – and approach, because she was working with professional actors rather than young first-timers and could thus ‘‘be braver’’, she says. The fact that it was a period film, on the other hand, never particularly struck her.
‘‘I felt I wasn’t taking a step into the past, I was just telling a story that hadn’t been told. It was about speaking from today,’’ she says. ‘‘I saw all the work of these women and I was kind of sad because I would say they were erased from art history – but mostly I was sad because I feel these images have been missing from my life.’’ It is a history, after all, that could have inspired girls like her.
This film certainly shows women that they were, are and could be artists; it is also about women as lovers. Sciamma and Haenel were partners for 11 years, although they split publicly before making Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Sciamma wonders if that knowledge affects people’s reading of the film; whether it does or not, her film is obviously ‘‘a lesbian imaginaire’’, as she put it in an interview with Slant magazine. What she didn’t want to do was make a film in which sexuality was the central complication.
‘‘Some people, the old culture, wants you to do that. Show the taboo, the impossibility, the struggle, the conflict with yourself. And we didn’t want to do that.’’ Everyone knows that story. ‘‘The real tragedy is that it is possible, but it’s made impossible — by the world of men, mostly. That’s also why there are no men in the film. It would mean portraying a character whose sole purpose is to be the enemy, which isn’t something that interests me at all.’’
As a storyteller, her concern was with these women’s immediate experience. In this context, she became a stickler for period detail, even consulting an art sociologist who could advise on the commercial realities of Marianne’s job. The women drink a great deal of wine, which is historically correct: water was unreliable. A point is made about the fact that there are pockets in the folds of Marianne’s dress. ‘‘It’s true to the time and period. Pockets were forbidden in the 19th century because women shouldn’t be able to hide anything. But in the 18th century, they had them.’’
Other historical details were harder to pin down. When Sophie reveals that she is pregnant, Marianne sets out to find an abortionist. When Sciamma asked historians what women would have done in those circumstances, they had ‘‘no clue’’, she says. They didn’t even know what they did when they had periods. ‘‘They don’t know because they don’t give a shit.’’
Within Portrait of a Lady on Fire, there is a similar sense that women have a whole secret history, running in silent parallel with the narratives taught in classrooms. In one extraordinary scene, Marianne and Heloise find themselves with Sophie in the woods at night among a group of local women who meet to sing and dance together in the light of a bonfire. Their voices strike out gloriously in the four-part female harmonies of Breton folk songs.
That’s also why there are no men in the film. It would mean portraying a character whose sole purpose is to be the enemy.
‘‘These secret societies did exist between women,’’ Haenel says. ‘‘As history was always written by men, it always seems that our whole thing was always mopping things up, but women always enjoyed partying.’’ For Heloise, who still longs for the convent school with daily choral singing and music lessons, it is an ecstatic moment. Here is the music she has missed, albeit hidden in the shadows.
‘‘The movie is talking a lot about the part played by art in our lives,’’ Sciamma says. ‘‘Not just as artists, but as people living in art. I wanted to create that sense of frustration that it is not accessible, you know, that you can’t just pick up a book. A book is precious. And I didn’t want any score for the film, because I wanted the audience to be in the same position.’’
To make a love story without a score was unnerving – ‘‘it’s pretty rare, I think, and when things are rare it is maybe because it’s not a good idea!’’ – but she wanted the audience to share Heloise’s sense of sensual pleasure as music is returned to her. ‘‘I wanted the music to be consoling. And that is what I wanted the movie to be: heartbreaking, but consoling. Because it is cinema – and cinema, like books and music, is a refuge and consolation. I wanted this to be both.’’
Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens on December 26.
Stephanie Bunbury joined Fairfax after studying fine arts and film at university, but soon discovered her inner backpacker and obeyed that call. She has spent the past two decades flitting between Europe and Australia, writing about film, culture high and low and the arts.