TIFF 2019: Queer Palm Winner Portrait of a Lady on Fire receives Canadian Premiere

This year’s Queer Palm winner Portrait of a Lady on Fire received its Canadian Premiere at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday 5th September.

After the screening the film’s writer/director Céline Sciamma took to the stage with her two leading actors Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel at Toronto’s Winter Garden to a standing ovation and rapturous applause.

Sciamma spoke of her desire to make a love story and to focus on “how it grows, how it flourishes, but also the memory of a love story, and what is left and the politics of love and the philosophy of love. And there was also the desire to work with Adele again. And the desire to speak about women artists. So there were a lot of desires! It took me some time to find the right balance and structure”

She also discussed the film’s eighteenth century setting: “It’s a very special period in art history for women because there were a lot women painters at the time which is not that well known, which I was ignorant about also. There were hundreds of them with careers and there were also feminist art critics. We tend to think the rights and opportunities for women were in constant progress, but it’s not true as we can see today we are having a cultural battle for women’s rights and for women’s opportunities post-#MeToo, we can see all the backlash. At the time there were several of them but they were erased from art history. We decided to invent her, not to do this biopic thing by taking one of the stars, we didn’t want to make this portrait of a strong woman we just wanted to make a portrait of a woman at work. Also we decided to set it in the past to invent an original story, not an adaptation because what should be contemporary is the film – contemporary is not what you’re looking at, it’s how you’re looking at things.”

On the practical aspects of the shoot, Sciamma revealed, “We began by shooting all the exteriors, which go throughout the film, at first they don’t know each other and then they have this passionate sequence of the beach so it was actually not at all chronological and that first moment was actually where we decided the level of sentimentality and emotion of the film and they didn’t really know each other, but we were very brave.”

On the idea of ‘the muse’ in art Sciamma said “One of the many aims of the film is to get rid of the idea of ‘the muse’ which is a nice word that actually hides the participation of women in art history, ‘the muse’ is the fetishized silent woman who’s inspiring just because she’s beautiful, and we know that even though for a long time women’s opportunities were to be models, these models were in the room, they were co-creating they were one of the brains in the room, so of course the goal was to portray that and to make a love story with equality and a love dialogue and a creation dialogue with equality. In the process of the film, there is a process in becoming this brain, because we have to take you into this process. I think a movie always reflects the way they were done and the politics of the set was that there was no muse and not only Adele, because the film was not only written thinking of Adele in that part but all these new collaborations, the DP, the set was cerebral. That’s the project of how we do cinema and what we want to portray. I really wanted these women to have this intellectual dialogue and to have their opinion, their hypothesis.”

Portrait of a Lady on Fire will be released in the US on 6th December 2019.

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