In the romantic drama “Portrait of the young girl on fire”, Noémie Merlant is responsible for producing a painting by Adèle Haenel. Many works had to be created for Céline Sciamma’s film, which was able to count on the talent of an artist from Lille.
Portrait of the girl on fire : from collaboration to love
Released in 2019, Portrait of the girl on fire marks the artistic reunion between director Céline Sciamma and actress Adèle Haenel, after birth of octopuses and the short film Pauline. With this romantic drama, the filmmaker offers the actress a role written for her and allowing her to explore something new, while revealing a new look at a love story.
The film takes place in 1770, on a Breton island. Painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned by a countess (Valeria Golino) to produce a portrait of his daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), betrothed to a Milanese nobleman. But not wanting to get married, the young woman refuses to pose.
Marianne is therefore presented to him as a lady companion, supposed to be by his side during his outings to observe him minutely and work on the painting secretly. As the countess considers sending her away, Héloïse finally accepts to be her model. A stimulating collaboration begins, which strengthens their bonds and then their emerging feelings.
Luàna Bajrami completes the cast of Portrait of the girl on fire. In official competition at the Cannes Film Festival, the feature film wins the Best Screenplay Award and the Queer Palm. Nominated in ten categories for the César, he won the Best Photography Award, attributed to Claire Mathon.
Céline Sciamma’s sources of inspiration
As she confided during the promotion of the drama, the work of many 18th century artists – most of whom she did not know the works of – struck Céline Sciamma during the genesis of the project. The director explains about these discoveries:
I knew the stars who attested to their existence: Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Artemisia Gentileschi, Angelica Kauffmann. The difficulty in collecting information and archives did not succeed in shielding for a long time the existence of a true feminine artistic boiling in the second half of the 18th century. The painters were numerous and made a career in favor in particular of the fashion of the portrait.
Research that the filmmaker carries out in particular with the chief operator Claire Mathon, the chief decorator Thomas Grézaud and Hélène Delmaire. After the filmmaker appreciated her works on Instagram and then in her studio, this artist from Lille realizes Marianne’s paintings for the film. Asked by Les Inrockuptibles, she says of her own influences:
I was particularly inspired by the portraits of Fragonard or by English painters, such as Joshua Reynolds.
Several versions of a table
Portrait of the girl on fire dwells on several stages in the construction of a painting. Scenes that Céline Sciamma and Claire Mathon have chosen to shoot in sequence shots. The director assures about this bias:
The choice of absence of ellipse is structuring. We chose the real time of the gestures of the work, its rhythm rather than the synthesis allowed by the editing.
During these moments of creation, Hélène Delmaire is therefore became the understudy of Noémie Merlant. A new and initially stressful challenge for the artist, as she admits to France 3 Hauts-de-France. But she nevertheless managed to acclimatize to the filming conditions and paint under the gaze of members of the film crew. She also has adapted his working method, making several versions of the same work to match the different scenes:
A film is not shot in the chronological order of the scenes. So one day the painting will be finished, the next day, we film a scene where the painter begins a detail of the same painting. It was therefore necessary to create a stage table for each sequence, so that for the two main tables, I made six or seven versions.
A “beautiful experience” whose apotheosis was his discovery of the feature film at the Cannes Film Festival.